Summary of ‘The fearless organization’ – Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation and growth by Amy Edmondson

(Summarised by Paul Arnold – Trainer, facilitator and strategic planner)


Psychological safety is the key to organisational learning. Organisations need to
be agile through continuous learning and cultivating a fearless environment that encourages people to speak up and contribute ideas. The trouble is psychological safety is fragile and needs continual renewal. Driving ‘fear out of an organisation’ will be a constant journey.

The three key ways to help build psychological safety at work are:

  1. De-stigmatize failure
  2. As a leader, demonstrate fallibility and humility (you do not know all the answers)
  3. Respond productively (listen intently, thank everyone for their contribution and act upon some of their suggestions



No passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers … as fear” – Edmund Burke

With the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world we live in, it’s even more important to fully utilise the latent potential of the workforce (to find solutions to increasingly challenging problems). We need teamwork where knowledge is freely shared across the organization. If the culture makes people afraid to share ideas/thoughts/challenges/concerns/ questions/mistakes/knowledge, then everyone loses. Our workplace is moving much more in collaboration (both inside an organisation, across geographical boundaries as well as with external organisations – 50% more time is spent collaborating than 20 years ago). Nearly every decision in an organization these days are made from seeking multiple perspectives from others. The greater an issue is analysed, then it is more likely the organization will make a better decision. So if we work in an environment that unconsciously suppresses expression, then we are more likely to make sub-optimal (and potentially catastrophic) decisions.

It’s an old truism that bad news does not travel up the hierarchy. The trouble is in today’s hectic workplace, there is little time or desire to entertain ‘blocks or challenges’ It steals time and energy. Managers MUST deliver! Furthermore, certain metrics (like faults) are closely monitored so these numbers can get ‘massaged’. So unconsciously even when raised Managers will tend to nod and then squash or ignore.

Sadly research also suggests psychological safety is in short supply in many organisations these days. There appears to be an epidemic of silence, where people are afraid of the consequences of speaking up and out – even when they recognise what they wanted to say would be of importance for the organisation (and this can sometimes lead to stress and personal regret).

When quizzed, people say they did not want to be seen in a bad light or damage relationships whilst others expressed the perceived futility of speaking up (i.e. high risk, low reward). Typical areas they wanted to comment on were poor performance of a manager, harassment, or suggested improvements for work processes.

In one piece of research, 85% of respondents reported that on at least one occasion at work, they did not feel they could rise an important concern with their boss. Even senior people can still feel the pressure not to comment or challenge.

Research highlighted some of the ‘taboo’ transgressions you do not commit:

Don’t criticise the boss on something s/he was involved in creating Don’t speak unless you have solid data
Don’t speak if your boss’s boss is present
Don’t speak up in a group which could make your boss lose face

The reality is, keeping quiet is usually always the safer option and consequently is the default setting (no-one gets fired for silence) – whilst speaking-up has high perceived risk. The trouble is, because people do not speak up, its impact is hidden from research. We do not know the real impact of silence.

Sadly, many managers still believe ruling through fear is an effective way to maximise performance. Yet research has clearly demonstrated that fear inhibits learning and co-operation. Fear diverts resources to manage this perceived threat, including reducing working memory. This impairs analytical thinking, creativity and problem solving abilities.

‘Workarounds’ is a term defined by Anita Tucker when she observed Nurses. She noticed that rather than challenge the bosses, they found ways around the problem. Workarounds are often less efficient and essentially hide the underlying problem. Teams with low psychological safety tend to indulge more in walkarounds. Research has shown projects with greater psychological safety were more successful overall than ones with low psychological safety. This in turn led to greater financial return.


The fearless organization is one where interpersonal fear is minimised, allowing a freer flow of knowledge. It’s an environment where a person feels able to express their views on something openly and honestly without fear of recrimination, abuse, putdown or humiliation.

Julia Rovovsky led a major, multi-year study of team effectiveness at Google (Project Aristotle). They analysed many different factors they thought may explain why some teams were more successful than others (these included education, hobbies, personality traits, backgrounds etc). They found no correlating features. What they eventually found was psychological safety was thekey factor that led to high performing teams. This was supported by four other features:

  1. Clear goals
  2. Dependable colleagues
  3. Personally meaningful work
  4. Belief that the work has impact

Psychological safety is not about being nice. It’s about being able to speak the truth. And it’s okay to disagree. Nor is psychological safety about lowering standards. It is actually the opposite. It’s about creating an environment that allows people to be more honest: to challenge, make improvement suggestions – that critically, get acted upon.

Psychological safety appears to live at the group/team level. In any organisation you will find pockets of both high and low psychological safety (often linked to the leader in that area).

Psychological safety starts at the top (but everyone’s also responsible for it).


The benefits of psychological safety are huge and widespread.

Research has shown psychological safety helps boost engagement/fulfilment/ greater meaning, and so helps unleash the talent of the workforce. It increases personal growth, team building, learning/new insights, error reporting, knowledge sharing, and creativity. It also helps reduce work stress, sick days, turnover, and helps overcome interpersonal challenges (such as geographic dispersement, conflict as well as embracing ethnic diversity). Ultimately, it leads to increased project effectiveness, innovation, in market competitiveness and financial return.


There have been many reported cases of people failing to challenge authority, leading to major mistakes (be it on planes, in companies, in hospitals etc). Unreachable targets matched with command and control management structures seems to be at the heart of other corporate disasters such as VW and Wells Fargo (to name but two).

VW – In the VW emissions scandal over 50 people were found to be knowingly involved in a deliberate conspiracy to defraud the USA Environmental Protection Agency. 11m diesel cars around the world had the software that meant when tested, it would record a significantly lower level of Nitrous Oxide. It all started to go wrong with the highly ambitious CARB (California Air Resources Board). Such was the pressure both in the public arena and inside the organisation, that the NOx levels had to be hit – no question. The CEO, Martin Winterkorn was known to be a tough, impatient, arrogant man with an obsessive focus of detail and perfectionism. If one presented bad news to him, he would shout and demean the individual in front of others. We find such behaviours often deeply engrained in an organisation’s history. Winterkorn, for example, was a protege of the previous boss, Ferdinand Piech. Piech instigated a reign of terror and a culture driven by fear and intimidation. Motivation through fear is effective at driving short term performance but not long term (as it disempowers the workforce’s latent potential).

WELLS FARGO – Wells Fargo was regarded as one of the most valuable banks in USA, servicing over a third of the US population. With the incessant pressure to grow, it decided it could gain a competitive advantage by becoming a one stop shop for all its customer’s financial needs. In the early 2000s, they adopted a cross selling strategy they called ‘Going for Gr-Eight’ (i.e. to take the average number of financial products held by an individual up from 6 to 8). Very aggressive targets were set for everyone. Each branch had to report their sales four times a day. If they did not hit their targets they were fired. One area President told his people to “do whatever it takes to sell”. This pressure of targets and fear of dismissal led to over two million fake accounts being created, as well as lying to customers to say that certain products were only available if purchased with others. By September 2016, they were found guilty of widespread misconduct, and were fined $185m.

Both companies were filled with talented people. But lack of psychological safety stopped them from facing the real realities of the environment they were in. The seeds of failure were sown many years before by the culture of the organization. If the truth can’t be told (or not heard) then eventually the senior management will start making fatal decisions based on false information.

Dangerous Silence – examples of how lack of psychological safety has caused major issues:

COLUMBIA – On Feb 1 2003, Columbia suffered a catastrophic re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts. Two weeks earlier, at the launch, one of the engineers, Rodney Rocha, thought he saw a chunk of insulting foam fall off the tank and strike the left wing. Rocha wanted to get satellite footage to check damage but this request was denied. He did not challenge it. Later on when asked why not, he said he was too low down in the organisation and the person who denied the request was “way up here”

CANARY ISLAND PLANE CRASH – In March 1977 two Boeing 747 collided with each other on a runway in the Canary Isles, killing 583 people. The runway was covered in fog so neither planes could see each other. Even with their own lives at risk, the first officer and chief engineer did not feel able to continue to challenge their dogmatic and impatient Captain, Jacob Van Zanten.

CHALLENGER – The 1986 Challenger explosion, Roger Boisjoly, an engineer at contractor Morton-Thiokol raised his concern the night before launch that the O-rings could be a faulty design. Due to the pressure to launch, his concerns were squashed.

UBER – In April 2017, Susan Fowler wrote a 3000 word blog about her own harassment from a male colleague at work. Uber at the time tried to squash it, saying it was this man’s first ever offence and would be given a stern talking to (as he was a high performer). Uber’s cultural value of ‘super-pumpedness’ did not support psychological safety. It took until June 2017 for the issue to snowball before the CEO stepped down.

The fearless workplace – real examples of psychological safety at work:

PIXAR – Pixar became one of the most successful studios because it put psychological safety at the core of its processes. Co-founder Ed Catmull said candour was critical to ensure high production standards were maintained. During the development period of a film, a group (The Braintrust) get together to review the progress of the film. These people are encouraged not to hold back but speak their mind. There are some clear rules of the Braintrust to ensure it stays on track:

-Feedback must be constructive
-The filmmaker cannot be defensive or take comments personally
-The comments are suggestions not mandates
-Feedback is not a ‘Gotcha’ but to come from a place of empathy and positive intent for the film. It is because they respect and trust in each other that this can work. Thus praise is also given out in equal measure.

Failure is another key ingredient for Pixar’s success. They embrace – even celebrate it. They see it as an essential ingredient for creativity. They claim creativity is a bit like riding a bike; you never get it right first time. Failure is key way we learn and grow. Thus people must be given the freedom to fail. If they are not, then people will tend not to take risks and continue what was done before, so will not explore new territories (not doing what’s done in the past is a key concept in creativity). With a fear driven/risk minimising culture all work would be derivative not innovative. Catmull therefore tries to decouple failure from fear.

GOOGLE X – Google set up Google X, an innovations lab, to develop ‘Moonshot technologies that would make the world a better place’. They positively reward (with bonuses and promotions) the closing down of projects so they do not waste resource pursuing dud projects (allowing them instead to invest in projects with greater potential).

Rapid Evaluation – GoogleX operates through a process of ‘disciplined experimentation’. Just as scientists must try to disprove their hypotheses (in order to validate them), so does Google X. They actively seek to test their ideas to destruction. The team first starts with Stage1: a ‘Pre-Mortem’ – a brainstorm to try to define as many reasons why the project could fail. Then a project moves into Stage 2: Rapid Evaluation.This stage involves making quick and simple prototypes. If it passes this stage then Step 3 is The Foundry – where a team challenges the need of the product (Should the solution exist? Will people actually use it?). Since 2016, the company have held an annual convention where they showcase their failures.

EILEEN FISHER – Eileen Fisher, owner of the clothes retailer practices “I don’t know” (Likewise, Anne Mulcahy, CEO at Xerox ). It’s too easy to be sucked in by the aura of being the ‘all knowing, all powerful boss’. She believes she needs to demonstrate that even the person at the top of a company does not have all the answers (thus exposing her fallibility and hence vulnerability). You must demonstrate humility and vulnerability to open the doors for other people’s contribution. She instead practices active listening. These two traits encourages others in the organisation to come forward with ideas.

MINING – Cynthia Carroll was the first female CEO appointed to run an international mining company. When she took over, one of her key objectives was to reduce fatalities/serious injuries to zero from an average of 40 per year (an almost impossible task bearing mind the inherent danger of mining). To demonstrate her intent, she immediately shut down one of the most dangerous mines (costing the company $8m a day). She wanted to hear from the miners herself what the problems were and how to resolve them. Due to past culture, miners were reluctant to speak up, so she instigated a traditional South African tradition of lekgotla (village meetings). Everyone sits in a circle and has the chance to speak without being criticised or interrupted. They shifted the key question away from safety to “What do we need to do to create an environment of care and respect?’. This led to a wide range of incremental improvements that generated increased trust between workers and the management. Both sides then signed a contract outlining what both management and workers would do to create this improved environment. 30,000 workers were re-trained. Regular safety reviews were conducted. Safety metrics were institutionalised. Fatalities did not reach zero but did drop to 17 (with each death fully honoured). Although production and revenues fell following the mine’s closure, by 2011 the company had achieved the highest operating profits in its long history. Moving to a place of mutual trust had not just saved lives but increased productivity.

P&G – In his book, The Game Changer, AF Laffley, ex-CEO of P&G, lists his 11 most expensive failures, citing these as excellent examples of corporate learnings.


You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions – Naguib Mahfouz

Psychological safety is built from trust and respect across an organisation. There are three key actions a leader needs to undertake to initiate the shift in culture:

De-stigmatise failure – The leader needs to state up-front that failure is acceptable (Catmull at Pixar reminds people at the start of a new film that it always starts out bad before coming good).In a piece of research, the authors asked ‘What percentage of work that goes wrong is blameworthy?’ The answers tend to be in the low single digits. But when asked, ‘What percentage of failures ARE treated as blameworthy?’ The response is usually between 70-90%. This mis-apportion of blame (blame-skating) leads people to be defensive and not admit to personal mistakes (as the history of the company has shown such admissions can be personally costly). Clearly breaches of standards/morals must be swiftly reprimanded, but these have been shown to increase psychological safety rather then decrease it.They also need to emphasise the purpose of the organisation and what is at stake. Subtle shifts in language can help play a key role e.g. replacing ‘error’ with ‘accident’.

Demonstrate fallibility and humility – It is key for the leader to demonstrate humility – to admit they do not know all the answers (and instead invite the team to make suggestions – especially those with hands-on experience). Otherwise people will be resistant to proffer ideas if the boss appears to project an aura of ‘knowing it all’. They need to actively invite others to contribute. They also need to develop the art of good questioning and even more importantly, the skill of active listening.

Respond productively – To build trust one must do more than just listen. How you respond is critical. For example, simply thanking them (genuinely) for their contribution helps encourage future contributions. You need to also act – e.g. by doing some of the suggestions, celebrating failure (and stopping activities that destroy psychological safety).

But it is not just the leaders who can help build and maintain a psychologically safe environment. Studies have revealed where there is a lot of communication across co-workers in a team, it increases trust, friendship and hence psychological safety.

Perhaps the easiest way to develop psychological safety is to act as if it already exists. Every person in an organisation is able to influence and direct psychological safety.

Furthermore, little snipes and gestures can easily erode the atmosphere of trust. And these can be commented upon by anyone in the organisation. Frances Frei from Harvard suggests saying, “Wow that felt super-inappropriate. Can we have a do-over?”


This book is a pretty dry read. Whilst the case histories are compulsive reading, they are a bit too far removed from the experience of most of us in our everyday worlds.

It’s also quite an academic book, referencing many other pieces of research to help support their own conclusions.

Furthermore, it is a bit rambly. As often is the case with these business books, it’s one key theme over-written to pad out 200+ pages.

The biggest issue I have with the book is its heavy on the issue but far too light on the practical answers to this deeply embedded problem.

Finally a word of caution. Psychological safety is not the magic elixir that will solve all the organisation’s issues. You still need all the other leadership tools such as objective setting, metrics etc.

Paul Arnold Consulting


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Summary of ‘The Choice Factory’ by Richard Shotton

Summarised by Paul Arnold – Strategic Planner, Facilitator and Trainer (

The book in a nutshell

People are not great decision makers. We can easily be unconsciously influenced — often by irrelevant things. The book reviews 25 biases and then suggests how they can be applied to Marketing/Advertising.


  1. Fundamental Attribution Error

Our behaviour is heavily influenced by the environment we are in (we underestimate the importance of context over personality).

Trainee Priests were asked to complete a questionnaire to understand their motivation for going into the Church. They were then split into two groups: those who were motivated to help others versus those who wanted salvation for their own souls. They were asked to deliver a talk in another building. They were asked to hurry on to get there (Low rush, medium rush or high rush). Along the way they passed a person who was pretending to be in distress. The key discriminator as to if the trainee Priest stopped was the time he had rather than his values. The situation not the person determined behaviour.

When people are busy they suffer from a narrowing of their cognitive mind — I.e., they don’t have the mental space to fully assess things widely, so are less likely to make quality decisions.


  1. Don’t try to communicate to people when they are rushing. 

A study found recall jumped from 25% to 45% when viewing time increased from  less than a second to between 1-2 seconds.

2)  Target contexts as well as target audience — Where and when the ad is placed heavily influences message take up.

2. Social Proof

We are unconsciously influenced by other people (and the more important they are to us, the more influential they are).


  1. State popularity (e.g. ‘Eight out of ten cats prefer Whiskas’).
  2. Tailor the claim — the closer you can get to identify with the social group, the greater the likelihood of influence — e.g. Costa talks about ‘coffee lovers’ not just drinkers.
  3. Do not assume people know how popular your brand is — Tell them.
  4. Think creatively — Find an angle that you are number one on (e.g., dark chocolate bars). If not #1, try to create the illusion of your popularity (e.g., when Apple launched the iPod, all the earphones were white, making them appear more common).

3. Negative Social Proof

What other people are NOT doing can also be as influential as what other people are doing. So beware the trap of accidentally reinforcing the negative behaviour e.g. The Guardian — “More people are reading the Guardian than ever, but fewer are paying for it” , e.g. NHS — “Only 4% of people donate blood”.


  1. Don’t state the unwanted behaviour.
  2. Flip the statistics — 97% of visitors leave the wood vs 3% steal the wood.
  3. Shift the mindset — Our actions are shaped by the way we think others might behave in that situation. However, we are often inaccurate. So state the surprising positive.

4. Distinctiveness

We are hard wired to notice what’s distinctive.

A German researcher gave participants a long list of three letters: jrm, tws, bnm etc. Interspersed amongst them was 153. People were able to recall the one distinctive groupings than the letters.


  1. Subvert category norms — ‘Zig when others zag’ (as John Hegarty wrote). If major lager brands sponsor football, do something different.  Distinctive work is more likely to come out a small number of decision-makers than a committee.
  2. Prove to your clients why sameness is not safe but deadly — Clients like past examples to support a campaign. But the very nature that a past example exists proves it should not be done.

5. Habit

Nearly half of all behaviour is habitual. Habits are also hard to break. The good news is habits are content related (think stimulus response). So change the environment and you can shift the habit. It can often take a life changing event (off to university, moving house, having a baby, ill health etc) that allows a new brand to enter the repertoire.

The author studied 10 product categories and six life events for each. Consumers were more likely to switch brands when they had undergone a life changing event.


  1. Target people at points of change — Facebook for example, captures data on people when they move house or end a relationship.
  2. Shake consumers out of their automatic behaviour — wake them out of their habitual trance to help them make new choices. Cf Sainsbury’s ad with Jamie Oliver where talks about people ‘sleep shopping’.
  3. Advertise at moments of reflection — People become very reflective just before they have a ‘BIG’ birthday (e.g., 30, 40, 50 etc). Many X9ers undertake new behaviours in that year — e.g., there is a 48% greater likelihood to run their first marathon in the X9 years. Sadly, there is also an increase in affairs during these X9 years as well.

6. The Pain of Payment

We feel the pain of loss more with cash than we do with credit cards. 

Thus, any means you can distance the purchaser from the tangibility and instantness of cash loss will seduce people to spend.

MIT students took part in a sealed bid auction to buy a pair of basketball tickets. Half were told they had to pay cash, the other half had to pay by credit card. The average bid for those paying by cash was $29. By card $61.


1) Invest in cashless technology (cf cashless giving, pre-paid gift cards).

2) Remove the £ sign — Byron (amongst others) have removed the £ sign so ’14.99’ is more abstract. Experiments in US have shown removing the $ sign led to an increase in sales of 8%.

3) Consider charm pricing — £3.99 feels a lot less than £4.00. Charm pricing makes 9% improvement in perceptions of value for money.

4) Manipulate the time frame — The shorter the time frame makes it more tangible.

In an experiment the authors showed four variants of the same car deal: Either chunking it into £4.57 a day, £32 a week, £139 a month or £1668 a year. The shorter the time frame made the car feel better value/more attainable.

5) Wrap it in a story — Explain why the deal is now (e.g. clearing back stock etc).

7. The Danger of Claimed Data

People often claim to do things they do not (cf the great quote from Sir David Ogilvy, “People don’t think how they feel; they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say” — Ed).

Analysis of 1.5 million members of dating websites have found that men are four times more likely to claim they earn over $100K and posted photos of when they were younger. Furthermore their average height was 2” taller than the national average. Men also overclaim on their number of sexual partners. A survey in 2010 found heterosexual men claim to have had sex with on average 12 women whilst women claim only eight.


  1. Ask what they think others would do. 
  2. Don’t ask. Observe.
  3. Mask the real objective. 

Respondents were asked to assess the attractiveness of various people. For one half, they showed the people carrying a New Look bag, the other half, a Top Shop bag. The people carrying the Top Shop bag were assessed as more attractive than those with the New Look bag.

  1. Found data — i.e. ‘exhaust’ data produced through their normal day to day activities (e.g., their search history or which identifies the way people ask questions).

8. Mood

Your mood affects what you focus on. 

For example, when more stressed, people will notice fewer ads than when relaxed. Snickers for example started targeting people by mood by mining information from Google’s ad server, DoubleClick (now called Ad Stack — Ed).


  1. Target people when in a good mood — e.g., during enjoyable events/time (such as Friday/Saturday).
  2. Match the message to the mood — High energy films are better received when in a positive state.

9. Price Relativity

We make decisions based on comparison (often to other brands in the same category). 

Thus, price is relative and based on the context. For example, PG Tips can appear better value for money when compared to Twinnings than when compared to own brand-label teas. 

In an experiment, people were prepared to pay 28% more for a Cobra beer when the comparator base was wines not beer.


  1. Shift the competitive set — Redbull and Nespresso are able to charge higher prices partly to do with how they broke away from their natural competitive set.
  2. Introduce a premium line — This makes the standard range seem better value for money. 

In an experiment, customers interested in buying a camera were asked to choose between two cameras, priced at $170 and $240. 50% chose each option. In another group, they were asked to choose between these two cameras and a third, priced at $470. 22% chose the $170 camera, 57% the $240 and 21% the $470 camera. Thus, introducing the more expensive camera increased the number of people who bought the middle option.

10. Primacy Effect

The order we receive information affects how it is interpreted. Our first experience with something is often more influential.

Psychologist Asch described a person to one group of students first with positive attributes (such as intelligent and industrious), before ending with negative attributes (such as stubborn and envious). In a separate group the order was reversed, with negative attributes first being expressed. The students who heard the positive attributes first, assessed the person more favourably.


  1. Go first — Ideally be the first ad in the break. 
  2. Make your first impression as impressive as possible — Dial it up. Build strong imagery with the values easiest to be associated with as opposed to those values most associated with the category (I.e. another take on Byron Sharp’s mental availability — Ed)

11. Expectancy Theory

Our expectation/perception of something can be influenced by the context/surroundings.

Psychologist, Brian Wansink asked customers in a Cafe in Illinois how much they would pay for a chocolate brownie. One group were given the brownie to taste on a paper napkin, another group on a paper plate and the third group the brownie was served to them on a china plate. In all cases the brownie was the same. Those given the brownie on a napkin said they would be prepared to pay 53c, vs 76c for paper plate and $1.27 for the china plate.


  1. Presentation is as important as product — thus, packaging, presentation in store etc. all play a role in driving perception. As Ludwig von Mises, an Australian economist, once said, “If you run a restaurant there is no healthy distinction to be made between the value you create by cooking the food, and the value you create by sweeping the floor”.
  2. Craft your copy — Good copywriting can influence perception.

A menu rewritten from ‘Red beans and rice’ to ‘Cajun red beans and rice’ increased students rating of the food.

12. Confirmation Bias

We see what we believe. I.e. we focus on and seek information that reaffirms our existing belief.

Football supporters from each side counted more fouls against their team than fouls committed by their own team.

Over 1,000 voters were asked their view on a proposed new policy. Half were told the policy came from one party. Half from their own party. When the policy was seen to come from their own party, they were significantly more likely to agree with the policy.


  1. Identify who most likely to influence — ‘Triage’ your audience to work out where your best return on marketing investment will pay out. It’s difficult to convince a brand rejector as they will have selective focus and misinterpret information to match their existing views. Likewise, it is not worth wasting money communicating to people who will be buying your brand anyway. Similarly ignore heavy buyers (as probably already buying as much as they can reasonably consume).
  2. Identify when to talk to rejecters (assuming you have to).

Research by Festinger suggests that we are more able to influence hard to convince people when they are distracted (as their critical faculties are already being used).  

For example, consider using radio as it is typically a support medium when they are doing something else. On TV it is best to target programmes where there is a lot of 2nd screening (e.g. Love Island).

  1. Influence rejecters with subtle associations/emotions rather than straight logic —This is more likely to evade their critical faculties.

13. Overconfidence

We over-estimate our abilities. 

88% of drivers think they are safer drivers than average. 90% of academics at University of Nebraska thought they were higher than average at lecturing. 89% of advertising agency staff think they were better at their jobs than their peers.


  1. Beware overconfidence — For example, agency and clients tend to assume their next piece of creative work will knock the socks off the competition (so are prepared to shave the media budget a bit).  Also clients and agencies tend to jettison successful campaigns too soon (even though they may start to see a drop-off in results, these campaigns still often outperform new campaigns).
  2. Overconfidence is growing — We live in a world of data yet extra data does not necessarily lead to better decision-making.

Research conducted by Paul Slovic has shown that increased amount of information does not necessarily lead to more accurate decision-making — just a greater sense of self-confidence.

  1. Turn consumer overconfidence to your advantage — The same applies to the general public, so appeal to their ‘expertise/generosity’.

14. Wishful Seeing

An extension of confirmation bias: We see what we want to see. We cannot focus on all things so we end up focusing on things that we agree with (and unconsciously choose to ignore stuff that disagrees with our ‘map of reality’). 

For example Brand Purpose — there is ‘evidence’ on both sides for and against Brand Purpose. Shotton does not support Brand Purpose so goes to great lengths to discredit the evidence from one source (Jim Stengel’s book, ‘Grow’).


  1. Beware getting trapped by your own paradigms —Ad agencies are guilty of this. They ‘believe’ certain things about what makes for great ads and then choose to ignore any evidence that counters that view.
  2. Be skeptical of anyone who claims to have a universal key to success — The world is too complex for such simple solutions. Phil Rozenweig, Professor of Strategy at IMD wrote, “In a competitive market economy, performance is fundamentally relative, not absolute. Success or failure depends not only on a company’s actions but also on those of its rivals”.

15. Media Context

Our perception is swayed by its context. Where you see an ad affects how we interpret it. Information is not neutral.

In a piece of research, respondents were shown 30 different headlines —supposedly taken from four different newspapers. The subjects then rated the credibility of the headlines. The credibility was significantly enhanced by the perceived trustworthiness  of the newspaper itself.


  1. Focus on where your message is best consumed — With the massive growth in programmatic buying in advertising, one can end up buying your audiences in the wrong places. This impacts on the effectiveness of the communication (e.g., instead of paying the premium prices to reach car buyers on the ‘What Car’ site, you serve them ads on a DIY site they also looked at. The context could then be less influential). 
  2. The importance of waste — the medium is the message. Sure, you can communicate all you want in a tiny space, but the confidence of a double page spread or a 60” TV ad says a lot more about the brand.

16. The Curse of Knowledge

We assume people know what we know.

In an experiment, Psychologist, Elizabeth Newton asked people to tap out a famous song, and see if other people could guess it. Out of 120 songs only 2.5% were correctly identified.


  1. Force yourself to be a real consumer — In judging creative work, agency and clients pore over every inch whilst normal people just give it a passing glance (Research by Lumen suggests on-line ads are looked at for 0.9 sec on average — with just 4% spending more than 2 seconds on an ad). He recommends research methodologies that more closely mimic real life behaviour ( 
  2. Beware the ‘maximiser’ philosophy — Herbert Simon, a Carnegie Mellon Psychologist, suggests most people are ‘Satisficers’ (i.e., “It’ll do” mentality. They are not looking for perfection and are more driven to avoid the negative of a product being rubbish). However,  most marketers tend to be ‘Maximisers’ – in that they are so obsessed with their product they focus on micro differences their brand has versus other brands. Frankly, that goes way over the heads of most people as consumers are not making that level of subtle distinction in their choices.

17. Goodhardt’s Law

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. 

For example, when we are bonused against a specific outcome it forces some unexpected behaviours/outcomes (e.g., sacrificing a larger sales next month to hit this month’s bonus). 

In Hanoi, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague. To try to contain it, the French Colonials offered a small reward for every rat’s tail. This led to people cutting off the tails and then letting the tail-less rats go free.

The ubiquity of digital measures is leading to the same result. Ill-thought through digital targets means people aim to hit these targets and forget the real task at hand.  

Field and Binet’s work for the IPA has revealed short term goals as the key metric has grown from 7% in 2006 to 33% in 2014.  

What works best in the short term (especially in advertising) is not always what is best in the long term. Marketers are focusing on easy to gain metrics than the more difficult ones (cf the great Einstein quote,”Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts” — Ed)


  1. Introduce a balanced set of measures — You are less likely to get bias if there are a range of metrics set (e.g., short term cost per click and long term brand tracking). Also be aware not to fall into the Rosser Reeves fallacy, where you compare effects of those who recognise the ad and those who do not. The reality is people who use your brand will more likely notice and then better rate your ad.
  2. Allow room for discretion — We need to use data to help make better decisions but not be blinkered and blinded by the data. 

Sir Alex Ferguson sold Jaap Stam, partly based on data that showed he was making fewer tackles.  In reality he was making fewer tackles because he was losing the ball less and intercepting more passes (so needed to make fewer tackles). Ferguson later admitted it was the biggest mistake of his career.

18. The Pratfall Effect

Flaws make a person (or brand) more honest, credible and trusted.  

In an experiment, an actor accidentally knocks over a coffee after answering some questions. Later on respondents rated him more likeable than an edited version of him with no spillage. The flaw made him more real. In another experiment people were offered perfectly shaped cookies or rough edged cookie. People overwhelmingly preferred the rough cookie (66%). 


1) Flaunt your flaws — cf the VW Beetle advertising (“It’s ugly but it gets you there”), Avis (“We’re nos 2”), Guinness (“Good things come to those who wait”).

2) Ensure the flaw matches the brand — Weak brands are less able to get away with this tactic than strong brands can (in the above experiment, the actor got 95% of the answers right. When he only got 30% right his accident made him less appealing). 

3) Express this through other media as well — Analysis of over 111,000 products found that likelihood to purchase did not come from 5/5 online scores but 4.2-4.5/5. That is because showing the flaws makes people believe the reviews more than if all are suggesting a brand is perfect.

19. Winner’s Curse

In auctions, the winner typically pays over the odds. 

When a large number of people are invited to guess something, their average is often very close to reality. Likewise in an auction where the price is not known. It must therefore mean that the person who wins is bidding over what the rest of the bidders think is the right price. Likewise programmatic media auctioning means marketers are paying over the odds.


  1. Find unique ways of reaching your target audience — Define your media auction criteria in new ways and avoid the standard way of demographics (e.g., ABC1 18-34 women). If however, you define it slightly differently (e.g., by browser usage) , there will be less ‘competition’ and so the price will be less inflated.
  2. Identify when a target audience become valuable — Identify the time/event when your customer is more likely to be open to your message. A lot of research has shown spontaneous, non essential purchases increase on pay day.
  3. Bid shaving — Decide what is the maximum you are prepared to pay to buy a thousand impressions on-line. Then deliberately bid less.

20.The Power of the Group

We trust in the wisdom of the crowd. This means we are easily swayed by what most others do/think.


  1. Prioritise group viewing moments — Research has shown that in groups, people experience more highs and lows of emotions than when watched alone. Films, documentaries, and news are twice as likely to be watched with others than other types of programming.

21. Veblen Goods

The price of something influences our perception of its quality/efficacy.

Dan Airiley recruited people to be given two small electric shocks — one before and one after receiving a pain killer. Half the participants were given a pain killer that they were told cost $2.50. The other half were given the same painkiller but this time were told it cost 10c. 85% of those told the higher price said they experienced less pain versus 61% for the cheap painkiller.


  1. Develop a portfolio — Price conveys a perception of quality. So over-invest in supporting your premium ranges as this perception of quality will halo across the rest of the brand.
  2. Discounters beware — The more often you discount, the more that discounted price become the new norm. Sir Martin Sorrell once said, “Promotions are like bad cholesterol: they boost sales but at a cost to brand health”.

22. The Replicability Crisis

We blindly believe ‘research’ as if it is the unquestionable truth. However, research is not always totally accurate.

A key principle of the advancement of scientific knowledge, is that the results from an experiment can be replicated. 270 scientists were asked to replicate 98 published psychological experiments. Only 47% of the studies were successfully replicated (to a set level of statistical significance).  In a beautifully ironic twist, scientist have even challenged the veracity of these findings!


  1. Be sceptical, not cynical — Do not take research on face value. Check it. Challenge it. That said, many areas of marketing do not require the level of veracity scientific advancement of knowledge needs to have. 
  2. Focus on Profit — The end goal for most brands is profit. Therefore, experiment your way to success. The more times you experiment, the greater the chance of hitting on the right ‘formula’.

23. Variability

Nudges are not magic. They do not change all the people, all the time. Different people will react to a ‘nudge’ in different ways. Thus we must not assume one ‘nudge fits all’.


  1. Test — Define your different target segments then test your way to find the optimum message for each group.
  2. Match the bias to the task — Not all cognitive biases are effective for all subject matters. So again, one needs to test to find out which biases are most appropriate for the task in hand.

24. Cocktail Party Effect

We subconsciously filter out a lot of information, but we instinctively pick up on things that are relevant to us. 

For example, across the hubbub of a cocktail party, we filter out most of the chatter, but will hear our name. 

In the cacophony of media, relevancy is the key to cutting through.


  1. Adopt a softer approach — Get closer, but not too close — e.g. the ads could reference the local area. This helps build the trust gap (an IPSOS MORI survey revealed that 38% of people seldom or never trust advertising claims). Charitable ads in particular benefit from geographic localisation (the more you can make an individual feel responsibility, the greater the chance of them to act).

25. Scarcity

The less there is, the more desirable an item becomes. 

As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The way to love anything is to realise that it might be lost”.


  1. Limit the number of products the consumer can buy

Three supermarkets took part in an experiment. They offered Campbell’s soups at a discount (79c vs 89c). At one shop there was no limit to the number of cans a consumer could purchase. In another it was limited to four cans. In the third store, it was  limited to 12 cans. In the unregulated store the average number of purchases was 3.3 cans. In the limited stores the average was 5.3 cans.

2) ‘Anchor’ the price — Once a price has been ‘anchored’ in people’s minds it becomes the number that defines value. So if the price is below the anchored price, they feel it is a ‘bargain’. De Beers diamonds cleverly set the ‘value’ of love at three months salary.

3) Limit the time to buy — An old trick but is growing in sophistication.  For example, Ocado offer special deals on the last few pages before checking out (that are only valid for the time they are on that page).

4) Publish that the short supply is due to high demand — then, you get the effect of scarcity and social proof both kicking in.


Behavioural economics can be seen as a positive force or a negative one, where we unconsciously manipulate people into buying things they do not want or need.

A couple  of counters:

  1. Nudging works at the margins. It does not sway all the people all the time, in all areas. It also cannot be abused due to things like the Advertising Standards Association. 
  2. The reality is Behavioural Economics is human nature — it has been around since the earliest traders (All Behavioural Economics has done is to codify human behaviour). The best we can do is to raise people’s awareness to it to give them more choices.

In the end the consumer will have the final vote. If a brand manipulates, then consumer will stop buying and start complaining. Every brand wants to ensure its long term survival. If Behavioural Economics principles starts to diminish this, then brands will stop using them and find other methods to help drive their sales.


A light, easy to digest book which lends itself to picking up and putting down. It succinctly packages 25 biases into a clear structure of principle/experiment/application to the advertising and marketing community

That said, this is not a serious academic book (I think his experiments would not stand up to proper scientific scrutiny). I rate Kahneman’s ‘Thinking fast and slow’ as a significantly better book about Behavioural Economics, but this is a much easier book to read and understand.

My advice is also his advice: Behavioural Economics is not some magic elixir for brand health. Different biases create different levels of impact, so test your way to success — and remain a bit sceptical over the research findings.

Posted in Advertising, Behaviour change, Behavioural Economics, Brands, Business strategy, Decision making, Marketing, Persuasion/Influence | Leave a comment

Book summary of Compelling People – The hidden qualities that make us influential By John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut



A Harvard Business School recommended reading book.

Displaying warmth with strength is key to making us more influential. Most men have perceived strength, women warmth. But we need both for successful relationship in both business and in life.

You can’t fake it. It must come from ‘inside-out’. We need to build our own self-belief that we have the skills and strategies to cope with most things that are chucked at us in life. From this inner strength of self-belief, it allows us to relax and let our warmth and strength shine through.

The book introduces us to a key concept of the inner circle: We can most effectively persuade when we are accepted ‘within the circle’ — i.e. that we have understanding and empathy for their position (warmth). Only then can our argument be listened to (strength). They define three steps: Acknowledge, Empathise then Lead.


Strength and warmth are key attributes that define the quality of our relationships with others. They have archaic roots, dating back to our pre-ancestors (friend or foe)?. These reactions still happen today (research suggests we decide the warmth of another person in 1/10th of a second). Also we can be strong in some areas and weak in others. Both can be developed and improved.


Warmth is the perception someone cares for us. They listen, understand us, even empathise with us.

We distrust people’s motives who lack warmth. They put us on our guard and we try to avoid them.

Warmth ironically comes from strength. If we feel strong and able to cope, we are able to feel much more relaxed, and so allow the warmth to naturally exude. If we feel threatened, our warmth is hidden away. Again we need to build warmth inside out. No amount of ‘faking’ it will hide how we really feel about a person. If we want to be warm towards someone we need to focus on what we like about them (ignoring what we do not like).


Strong people exude a sense of inner ability, strength and confidence. We can be influenced by them and follow them (so they are often in leadership positions). But strength alone is not the key to leadership. Without the warmth we may respect them, but we may not like nor trust them.

A lot of strength derives from testosterone. Higher levels leads to increased confidence, risk taking and aggression. Cortisol counterbalances testosterone (Cortisol being the chemical of anxiety) undermining our confidence. Conversely, testosterone can act as an inhibitor of Oxytocin (one of the key chemicals of warmth).

Warmth with Strength

We need both to be effective. Too much Strength creates fear, distrust and separation. Too much warmth creates a perception of weakness.

Relative and contextual qualities of Strength and Warmth – These qualities are relative. A person might be warmer than another, but colder than a third person. Likewise, if someone is perceived as ‘strong’ then they are likely to be also perceived to be ‘less warm’. Indeed, if two people are going for a job, one will be unconsciously labelled ‘the strong’ one and the other ’the warm’ one.

Warmth and strength are contextual. We want more warmth in social situations and more strength in the workplace

Stereotypes – We make instant assessments of people on this Strength/Warmth matrix. We will assess people through our own personal historic perspective. If we favour one over the other, this will influence what we see. Men are presumed strong (and colder), Women are presumed warm (and weaker). Both sexes get rewarded and accepted for this dominant trait. It’s more acceptable for a man to demonstrate dominant behaviour and for a woman to be more emotional.

When we break these stereotyped expectations we are often seen as an outsider, a maverick — even odd (cf David Bowie). Culturally, there appears to be greater tolerance of men being warmer than women being stronger. Women who are strong are seen as cold, callous and often resentful. Thus, society can ‘punish’ people for breaking conventions. Conversely, when a man becomes a father they gain the added kudos of increased warmth (without it affecting their perception of strength).

Many American’s disliked Hilary Clinton’s strength (at one time she was the butt of more jokes than anyone else and was nicknamed ‘Chillary’). The most profound shift came during the New Hampshire primaries when she demonstrated a vulnerability not previously displayed (“So as tired as I am — and I am…and as difficult as it is to carry on…”)

Building Relationships – The book suggests three strategies:

Strategy #1 – Be assertive, but not angry – Anger is not an expression of strength but a sign of weakness (as out of control). Assertiveness is about responding, where the feelings are contained and channeled.

Strategy #2 – Getting tough for the sake of good of others – There are very few incidences where anger is condoned (especially with women) but one of them is where the person is standing up for others (rather than for themselves) on things like values or higher level principles — thus, a person is allowed to be strong when it is a selfless act.

Strategy #3 – Dial up the warmth, not tone it down – Our current society is increasingly valuing warmth. The book suggests that we need to amp up our opposite force if we want to be effective. If we want to increase our perception of strength, we need to increase our warmth. Strength comes from warmth. Warmth comes from strength.

Factors that drive perception of our strength and warmth

There are many aspects that help define our perceived strength and warmth, many we can play with to improve our perceived strength and warmth. For example, Culture, Sex, Race, Age, Body shape, Gait, Energy levels, Facial movements/shape, Eye movements, Language, Tonality, Accents, etc are all cues that we unconsciously pick up on as to a person’s strength and warmth. A few specifics worth mentioning:

Cultural differences – We also need to be aware of cultural sensitivities. What is appropriate in one market would be very wrong elsewhere, or with a different person/age/sex/religious persuasion?

Colour – Sadly, black women in positions of authority have little room for error (as they break the socio-sexual conventions). It appears Black women leaders are criticised more than black men or white women.

Stereotypes – Stereotypes stick, hence the headline, ‘Why Obama doesn’t dare become the angry black man’. Martin Luther King’s non violent protest was driven by his understanding that angry (black) people give away their respect and hence influence when they appear to ‘lose control’. Dignity and restraint are always more powerful weapons against mis-justice.

Disability – Disability can swing both ways. On the surface it projects weakness. However, the resilience and perseverance of overcoming a disability is often seen as a great strength.

Body shape – Body movement likewise convey a lot. If a person feels weak and anxious, they tend to lean away, cross their arms, shrink their shoulders, rub their hands together or touch their face. In this sense the body cannot lie well. We are unconsciously communicating all the time.

Posture – The military and ballet both teach people the fundamental importance of strong posture. Research has shown that merely adopting different postures can change our emotions (as seen by levels of testosterone)

Gait – A relaxed, longer, graceful gait with head up and shoulders back all adds height and hence stature (versus a short, pacy gait, with the head low, and shoulders cramped over).

Hand movements – The weak handshake (with no eye contact) creates a poor first impression. Likewise, limp wrists suggest weakness. Karate chops and pointing demonstrate strength. The warmest hand gesture is arms open wide, palms up (literally welcoming with open arms). Similarly the most powerful hand position is to metaphorically cup a ball between our waists and hips, slightly held away from the body.

Touch – Touch is a sign of warmth/confidence. Modern day cultures (of fist hits, chest bashing etc) are also signs of warmth/strength.

Face – There are 43 muscles in the face and so is the best place for displaying warmth or strength. Ekman found that we all share the same facial expressions for various emotional states — irrespective of our cultural backgrounds. A grimace or head position (e.g., ’looking down our nose’ at others) reduces perceived warmth but may increase strength cues. Conversely, a slight head tilt to one side increases warmth. Likewise, soft eyes and a wide longer lasting smile (we can all detect a fake smile as the eyes need to smile as well).

Eye contact – Eye contact is a critical way to convey both strength and warmth. When people cannot hold eye contact for long it suggests diffidence. A high status person of strength may use lack of eye contact to convey disdain (to further build their superiority). That said, in many parts of Asia, too much eye contact can also signal lack of respect.

Voice – The voice conveys a lot of emotion. Again different pitches, loudness, tonality, fluidness, and speed all provide cues to a person’s warmth and strength. The advice is that when we want to hit home with a key thought, to slow down and really enunciate the words with a slightly raised voice.

Words – Agreeing with another person’s and using their same words helps build warmth (disagreeing is often seen as a sign of strength/power play). Overuse of filler words (such as “umm” and “you know..”) detracts from a person’s perceived strength. Using “we” conveys warmth, whilst “I” suggests strength.

Language – We can bolster our verbal strength through a number of language techniques. Use of metaphors/analogies demonstrate our verbal prowess; as does deductive thinking (through the use of ‘If..then…’ etc). Other techniques include repetition, alliteration and word play (especially if locked into patterns of three: “Of the people; by the people; for the people”). Famous quotations also helps project an aura of knowledge and hence strength.

Humour & Storytelling – Storytelling as well as humour are powerful influencers as they combine warmth and strength. Research has indicated that we are wired for stories. They are easier to remember and a joy to hear. Yet they both carry hidden inner meaning that gets absorbed straight into the unconscious mind.

Inside-out – These non-verbal cues are hard to mask, so it’s best not to try to fake it. In reality, we need an inside-out approach. Only if we feel authentically warm to another person, or internally confident, will the non-verbal cues be aligned.

Assessing our warmth/strength

We believe our success comes from our own innate skills and that our failures come from external factors.

Self analysis – We need to undertake a bit of self analysis. Look at photos of yourself (especially the more natural ones). How do you come across? If you met a person with that look, what would you assume they would be like? Also ask friends, relatives and work colleagues. Quickly you will start to build up a profile of where you lie on the two axes. The reality is we are all imperfect — but that does not mean we cannot improve.

Confidence – We do not need to be totally free of all issues in the past to raise our self-confidence but we do need to be able to manage better our emotions. To do this, we need to re-examine the meaning we put on events/people, so we can react in a more ‘adult’ manner. It is recommended to ‘future pace’ events that could come up to practice how we would react. Many top sportspeople use visualisation techniques to better master their future performance. When unsure, we need to refocus on the task and why it is important for us. This adds greater resolve. Another technique is to take bite size chunks, starting first on smaller interventions, to slowly build up our confidence. The more often we ‘cope,’ the greater we build our belief system that we can cope again in the future with bigger, more threatening situations.


The best way to persuade is from the inside in person’s safety circle. The authors propose three steps: Acknowledge, Empathise and then Lead.

The circle

When Robert Kennedy heard the news of Matin Luther King’s death, he gave a powerful speech that quelled the anger and violence in the city of Indianapolis.

1) Acknowledge – Kennedy first acknowledged their feelings. He said, “You can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred and a desire for revenge”. In other words, he connected with where they were right now (you can only move people if you acknowledge where they are right now).

2) Empathise – It’s not good enough to just acknowledge how they feel. We need to the say how we also share the same feelings. Kennedy identified with them (referencing how his own family had suffered murders by white men). By doing this he put himself inside the circle — to be with them, not outside of them. He found a shared point of connection so they saw him as part of them. Hence the circle. People will only listen to people they see to be ‘inside the circle’. So people will see us as either inside the circle or outside it. Bringing our own real life experiences here is critical. ’I know how you feel – I have been there myself’ is in essence what we need to convey to be listened to. Thus we first connect through warmth. The heart needs to open to make the ears open. If Kennedy had started from a place of strength, and tried to suggest a different interpretation of the events he would have been lynched. We often make this mistake by leading on strength but this alienates. Only through humility and empathy can we build the rapport necessary to allow us to later-on start to lead with advice (i.e. Pace. Pace. Pace…then lead).

3) Lead. Only after building rapport couldKennedy then start making suggestions of the type of country America needed to become. Obama did the same. On one occasion, Obama was arguing against the second amendment. First he got inside the circle by acknowledging the right of Americans to carry a gun. He then cleverly pushed the NRA out of the circle by suggesting the NRA was not like them (“They believe any constraint or regulation whatsoever is something they have to beat back. And I don’t think that is how most firearm owners think”.)

Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “ The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows without a shadow of doubt what is laid before him”. Thus we must first start with their ‘map of reality’. This is particularly effective if they assume we have a counter point of view.

This also stops the argument (as when argument starts, persuasion stops as argument just pushes us back into our corners). MRI scans show how we only pick up on messages that supports our point of view (We see what we believe – Ed). The best way to persuade, is to keep things non- confrontational (because as soon as the lines are drawn, the barriers come up). Keep pointing out the common ground. We need to keep warmth high, to allow the strength of our argument to be heard.

Strength and warmth in the world

Work – People are unconsciously cultured into the strength mantra in their workplace, suppressingany emotions and so (often mistakenly) giving up on warmth. We are beginning to see a shift towards warmth, especially in the newer start up companies.

Managing others – In managing others it is better to do so from a place of warmth not strength. Warmth is a more respectful and conducive way to get things done — not threats and aggression.

Sales – Salesmen often use both strength and warmth to get the sale. They start all warm, then become tough.

Marketing – Brands likewise try to project a clear personality that often lies on the strength versus warmth matrix (cf Ariel = strength, Persil warmth – Ed).

When things go wrong – It requires warmth of humility and contrition, followed quickly by the strength of how we are going to resolve the situation.


Many men find happiness to be the most important trait in women, and women find confidence to be the most important trait in men (put in another way: confidence makes a man look attractive and warmth makes a female attractive). Woman want a man to project strength (warm strength not aggressive strength). Men want warmth from women.

A lot of this is conveyed through non verbal cues when we first meet someone. A smile starts a conversation. It says, ‘I’m safe’. The unspoken rule for women is to be the gatekeeper at every stage. She ‘allows’ progression to the next stage; whilst the man’s role is to proactively knock on every gate to be invited through. The man pushes his luck and the women sits in judgment of his efforts until she is won over. Whilst this is becoming more fluid, it is still more common than the reversal of these roles. The role of the man to make the move is actually about him demonstratinghis strength through confidence and courage: Fortune favours the bold.

When men are attracted to another person, they often adopt peacock like positions: Chest out, standing tall or spreading wide to demonstrate their strength and stature. The female response is conversely one of weakness: falling under the ‘strength’ signals to express unconsciously her ‘acquiescence’ — the bashful pose, head cocked to one side, eyes dropped into submission (called the ‘duck and peek’), or even at a later stage ‘bedroom eyes’. The classic exposing the neck when the head goes down is a classic sign of ‘submission’ to a more dominant force. The other alternative is extended eye contact (that can suggest both strength and warmth) and of course touch.

Negotiators on the other hand want everyone to get along (often sacrificing personal wants). They are good listeners and very attentive to other people’s feelings. They avoid conflict and can acquiesce — hence they are seen to be high on warmth but low on strength. Fischer found that Explorers tend to make better long term partners with other Explorers. Likewise, Builders. However, Directors tend to get on better with Negotiators (and vice versa).

On the rocks – Gottman from Washington devised a test that led to a 95% accuracy in predicting if couples would be together still after 15 years. It appears there are four ‘deadly horsemen’ that led to failed relationships: Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Contempt. Criticism creates counter criticism, leading to defensiveness, which then leads to the person essentially ignoring the other person. Stonewalling shows lack of respect (by refusing to acknowledge the other person and their point of view). The final deadly twist is contempt, as the body language screams out, “I hate you!”. Conversely, a lot of long-term relationships are built on mutual respect and trust.

Child rearing – There appears to be two different models of child rearing (often linked to different cultures and generations). There is the strength model. Maintaining strict rules and discipline, with little room for love, and positive support. Then there is the much more liberal, permissive empathetic approach. Both can lead to ill-balanced children. However, it is suggested there is a middle ground called authoritative parenting — it’s both warmth and strength together. To pull this off, parents need to first learn how to manage their own emotions (as kids model their parent’s behaviour).


If we feel strong, we do not feel threatened and so can relax and be warm. Strength comes from confidence in our ability. Warmth helps us connect. For us to fully engage with others, we need first to be strong inside. There is a great power when both warmth and strength work together. People then have ‘presence’. We have deeper relationships with those around us and achieve much more. This results in a positive spiral up.


This is one of those books whose simplicity is alluring, but when we peak behind the curtain, we realise it’s just a clever ‘top dressing’ that masks a mass of complexity. So many factors influence both of these qualities. Hence the ‘solution’ (i.e., how do I become warmer and/or stronger) is equally complex and opaque. The reality is this notion of ‘inside-out’ probably takes years with a Psychotherapist than an afternoon with this book.

This is a ‘light’ book. It is full of common truths that at best bore, and at worse irritate (such as the long winded section about face, hair, voice, clothes, shoes etc). I honestly can say I did not enjoy reading this book.

The circle idea is, I think, the strongest concept in this book.

Like so many books, it falls into the trap of trying to support its hypothesis by demonstrating its ubiquity across everywhere. The trouble with this strategy is often they start skating on thin ice. Instead of adding further support to their theory it starts to undermine it.

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Book summary of ‘Leaders eat last – Why some teams pull together and others don’t By Simon Sinek

Leaders eat last


The book in a nutshell

We achieve so much more when we work together. Yet our obsession with ever-shortening financial goals is making us lose-sight of what is really important — the employees. Leaders are creating a caustic environment that is killing co-operation. 

Chemicals control our emotions and hence our behaviour. Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin help push us to achieve things (together). However, financial driven goals linked to bonuses are pushing our behaviour into competitive, isolationist behaviours which triggers the over-secretion of Cortisol (which effectively closes down our immune systems). 

Leaders therefore need to create Oxytocin infused organisations that stimulates collaboration.

The book


Trust – Successful organisations have a strong culture create trust amongst its members.  

Trust is the most important quality any person or organisation must have to maintain long-term relationships. Trust is like a lubricant. It reduces friction and increases performance. However, it’s very easy to break trust. Critically, leaders need to understand the importance of people and relationships to achieve their vision.

In August 2002, in Afghanistan, Captain Mark Drowley (nicknamed Johnny Bravo) performed a ‘let down’ in his A10 attack aircraft (where they fly close to the ground in range of enemy fire, to ascertain the movements of the troops). When asked afterwards why he decided to do such a brave move, he simply replied. “Because they would have done it for me”. His heroic attitude and actions are part of the military’s culture.

In the days of the industrial revolution (and after), people were treated like machines. Clock in. Clock out. Emotionless. Just a constant drive for higher productivity. So it was at Hayssen Sandiacre. When Bob Chapman took over the ailing company, he saw the workers joking together in the tea room, but lose all their lifeblood when they went back into the factory (80% of people surveyed by Deloitte’s were dissatisfied with their jobs). He wanted them to enjoy their time at the workbench and not just in the canteen. He listened to the workers describe how they were not trusted, were watched and monitored all the time. Chapman recognised the need for greater humanity in the workplace. He allowed the workers greater autonomy, treating them with dignity, respect and trust. This changing attitude helped increase turnover from $55m to $95m.

Culture – A culture is often described as the hidden hand of control. Staff unconsciously follow the values, beliefs and ‘ways of doing things’ of an organisation. When the culture is strong, it guides behaviour (and vice versa when the culture is weak). A key role of leadership is to maintain/develop a strong culture. Cultures that solely reward financial achievements shift the organisation away from its values. Bad cultures breed bad leaders and hence, bad employees.Weak cultures make people do what is right for them and not what is right for the organisation.

‘Long term greedy’ is how a past employee coined the way Goldman Sachs operated. Goldman Sachs had a very strong culture in the past. People had to be a high standard of character to be accepted into the firm. In 1999, they went public, leading to an explosion in financial innovation. A new type of aggressive trader came in. The company’s culture started to shift. Old company values (such as ethics) got swept to one side by the allure of rapid profits and eye-watering bonuses; people were pitched against each other leading to low trust, low respect and low accountability. The environment was one of ‘win at all costs’ — even of it meant squashing their co-workers. The culture had turned ‘toxic’.


In November 2008, terrorists raided the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai with automatic weapons, killing 31 people. Employees risked their lives to save their guests, forming human rings around them, and returned back inside to help rescue other guests. The culture was totally geared to putting the guests first. When recruiting, they class empathy and respect higher than academic grades.

Parent-Leader – To be put in charge of someone is a special gift. Like a parent, a manager/leader is responsible for developing their potential. We should treat our employees as if they are family.  When the going gets tough at home, we see it through thick and thin — together. In work we should sacrifice the numbers to save the people — not vice versa.  When you stand behind your people, they stand behind you. If you grow your people, you grow your numbers.

Leadership requires a commitment and constant attention to managing the dynamic ecosystem of teams. It takes time. Like a parent they have to make personal sacrifices for the common good of the organisation.

Charlie Kim of Next Jump has instituted a Lifetime employment policy — i.e. no-one gets fired — they just get coached. He says you would never fire your kids, so why fire your people? This led to a massive change in the culture. People started communicating more openly. Mistakes and problems were pointed out quicker, and productivity shot up. Average revenue has grown by 25% every year since.

Lead the people, not the numbers – Leadership is about taking responsibility for lives not just numbers. Lives are, after all, more important than numbers. The reality is, if we look after the people, the numbers will take care of themselves. 

With an eye only on short-term wealth, leaders cannot hope to inspire confidence as the quickest way to increasing profit is reducing cost. Furthermore, with the eye-watering explosion of bonuses to senior Directors, it is no surprise this policy still continues. Our new obsession with shareholder wealth is killing the ‘golden-goose’ of employee collaboration.

Empowerment – The strength of a leader needs to be measured as much by the legacy s/he leaves behind them. Research shows that organisations led by an empowering leader outperform ‘directive style leadership organisations’ as a higher level of team-learning, empowerment and collaboration is built into the culture. Good leadership is like exercise. You will not see an immediate improvement, but it will pay-off in the long run.

Captain David Marquet was a distinguished sub-marina, who was put in charge of USS Sante Fe (which was ranked last in the Navy metrics). One day, he issued a command, “Ahead two-thirds”. However no change was made. When he asked the helmsman why no change was made, the deputy replied that on this vessel there was no ‘two-thirds’. When Marquet challenged him why he accepted the order, the office replied, “Because you told me to”.  He noted that people at the top have all the power but none of the information (and vice versa). This triggered a whole new way which he managed the submarine. Instead of a top-down command system, he empowered all staff with the power of making the right decision. Leaders were addicted to power and control. The language was changed from “Sir, Request permission to…” to, “Sir, I intend to…” This way the person now owned the action. This massively built morale and bridged a new quality of relationship. Sante Fe then cruised up to becoming the best rated crew in all Navy history. Captain Marquet comments, “The goal of a leader is to give no orders. Leaders are to provide direction…and then allow others to figure out what to do”. A leader’s role is to help develop their teams to make better quality decisions.

The malaise of abstraction (To see, to touch, to feel, to care) – The greater the detachment

 the greater the abstraction. If we don’t know them, we don’t care for them. So as companies become bigger and more global, so the people who operate the purse strings do not care about the individual. The less you know someone, the easier it is to make them redundant (or fail to promote/give them pay rises etc).

In 1961, Stanley Milgram invited people (supposedly randomly) to be the teacher. The teacher sat in a room, with a microphone and speaker, and a large shock generator. In another room was another subject who was subjected to increasing intensity shocks if they got answers to questions wrong. It was up to the teacher to deliver these shocks in 15 volt increments up to a supposed 450 volts. The question was, would a person follow orders from an authority figure (a man in a white coat) and deliver life threatening shocks? Sadly many people did (65% when in a separate room). In one variation the supposed learner (victim) sat next to the teacher. In these situations, the level of compliance was significantly lower. The more you know/see/feel a person the more you will care for them. Physical presence creates deep emotional bonds.

Numbers of people aren’t people. They’re just numbers. “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic” said Joseph Stalin. The greater the distance from any individual, the less we care. The same goes with number as physical space.

James Sinegal was the co-founder of CostCo. He saw his employees as ‘family’ and rewarded loyalty and trust. He encouraged a collaborative culture where everyone ‘looks out for each other’ rather than being in competition with each other. In 2009, there was a drop in sales by 27%. Unlike other retailers also caught up in the recession, he decided to raise salaries rather than cutting them as he realised his staff needed more help in hard times, not less.  “Wall Street is in the business of making money between now and next Tuesday. We’re in the business of building an organisation, an institution that we hope will be here in 50 years from now”. CostCo therefore has a higher than average loyalty levels and have a policy of promoting from within (2/3 of Managers first started as cashiers) – Customers will never love a company until the employers love it first.

The curse of isolation at the top – Power often shuts the leader off from the world. Paranoia can often set-in, with the leader believing that everyone is against them. They then create extra barriers with people and processes to protect themselves, further exacerbating the separation from reality. Ultimately the organisation suffers.

Ethics – If there are no regulations, people lose sight of morals. Whenever we have seen a ‘relaxing’ of rules (in the false belief of improving the freedom of commerce) we have seen organisations push quickly into that space i.e. it is not ethics that holds people back. It’s the law.

Bank of America tried to charge their customers $5 per month to use their credit cards. After an angry outburst from its customers, it reversed its decision. Rather than admitting it was a mistake, they tried to justify it (even spinning different stories to the financial community and another to the public), pouring further fuel onto the fire of outrage and mistrust. 


Ralph Lauren’s Argentinian division was found to be giving bribes/incentives to government officials to speed through shipments. When central Head Office found out, instead of trying to cover it up, they self-reported it to US authorities. In the end they were fined $1.6m — but it was ‘good value’ as it helped protect (even enhance) their reputation. 

These may both be small examples but often they are a testament to how the organisation operates overall. As the Zen Buddhist saying goes, ‘How you do anything is how you do everything’.

Carrot versus the stick – Bosses may have some call of authority and order over their employees, but the stick is less powerful than having an inspiring purpose to chase. The carrot is ultimately more powerful. Companies need to re-axis themselves. Profit merely allows them the ability to do what they really want to do. Often there is higher ambition in serving the needs of others than in merely serving ourselves. Costco and SouthWest Airline are two classic examples of organisations who put their staff first, customers second and shareholders third. It is only by successfully serving the first two, can the third be fed. Setting goals of being the number one… merely serves oneself. We must set our vision/purpose towards serving others first.

Psychological safety

Circle of safety – We all perform better when we feel safe. When threatened, we close down, become defensive, agitated, stressed and aggressive. It saps our energy and our spirit. The reason why homo sapiens dominated the planet is because they worked together. Not only can we protect all our families from external threats, but with more hands and minds, we can achieve so much more than we ever can alone.

When an organisation/department creates a ‘circle of safety’, we dramatically increase the energy, trust, happiness, productivity and mutual support for each other. We are more open and hence more creative. We share ideas, and build on others suggestions. We feel valued. When we give out trust and respect to others, we engender it back towards us. When a team feels connected and understood, they will rally round each other, supporting and building the team.  Not only is productivity exponentially enhanced, but loyalty also increases. Thus the primary role of a leader is to create a culture of safety. As the organisation grows, so s/he needs to ensure the circle of safety is maintained.

Co-ompetition – Many misguided leaders believe that creating internal competitive pressure is good for driving performance. It’s the complete opposite.  When we feel threatened, we close down, we do not share, we become defensive and selfish. We create factions and hostilities that drains the energy of the people and ultimately, the organisation. Instead of focusing on the common good, we focus on our personal survival. This ‘infighting’ means we cannot ‘fight’ as effectively against the outside forces — thus we are more likely that the organisation weaker.

Ill-health – Lack of psychological safety leads to high anxiety, triggering major health issues. Ironically, in a world where the average person has more than any of their ancestors, very few people feel fulfilled in their lives. Feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression are epidemic. It is fuelling a growth in self-help and therapies in all shapes and sizes. Partly this is due to the caustic work environments. Organisations are not designed to get the best out of people.

In 2011, a study conducted by Canberra University revealed that that a job we hate can seriously damage our health. Levels of depression and anxiety were greater than those not in work. They traced this stress and anxiety less to the work itself and more to weak management and leadership. Another study by University College London found that those who did not feel recognised for their work suffered higher levels of stress leading to increased heart disease. The reason for this was a lack of control over a large chunk of their lives. An American survey in 2013 concluded that when bosses ignore us, 40% disengage from work. Trouble is, emotions are contagious (misery loves company). When someone starts moaning at work, it soon spreads like wildfire.  

The Whitehall studies were set up to investigate the relationship between stress and the hierarchy in a company. The discovered that stress did not come from the greater seniority you had, but the reverse. Lack of control in their workplace was the primary creator of stress. Higher-up, you are more self-determining. Lower down you are told what to do every minute of the day.  Stressed-out senior executives were living longer as they had much greater autonomy over work. Workers lowest in the hierarchy had a premature death rate four times higher than senior executives. They also saw much higher levels of mental illness.

Home balance – If we have a psychologically healthy home life, it can help balance the deleterious effect of a stressed-out work environment. Sadly, research shows when we have a dysfunctioning work place, we take our stresses home with us (and that starts to poison our home-life).

A study by Boston College found a child’s well-being is less influenced by the long hours the parents worked, and more by the mood the parents were in when they came home.

Change – Sir Isaac Newton’s second law of motion states, f=ma: force = mass times acceleration. To move a large company (mass) requires a huge force. The trouble is, many change programs are often counter productive. They create massive unease and fear, reducing the sense of psychological safety. So rather than helping make people work closer together, it makes people focus on self survival ( and a mass desire to return to the status quo). We need to re-look at the equation f=ma –  Acceleration has been forgotten about. We can shift a large mass either by applying a large force or by doing it slowly. Small changes over a longer period of time will often be more successful as slower change can be more easy absorbed ‘safely’ by the organisation.

The chemicals the drive our emotions and behaviour

Emotions are our primary drivers of behaviour. And our emotions are triggered by chemicals in the body. There are four primary chemicals that control our positive emotions of happiness, pride, connectedness, love etc: Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin (EDSO). Serotonin and Oxytocin help steer us toward making decisions that support the group as opposed to purely selfish acts. Endorphins and Dopamine tend to support more selfish, survival instincts (like food, shelter, warmth etc). Cortisol is the opposite, readying us for attack/defence.

Endorphins – Endorphins are the runners high. They serve to hide pain with pleasure. You can develop a craving for the ‘high’ endorphins deliver after a hard workout. In this sense they are the reward to make us take-on hard challenges.

Dopamine – Dopamine is also a reward for a job well done. It’s that elated sense of pride we have having finished a task. Dopamine is highly addictive and keep us wanting more (especially since its effects do not last long, propelling us to the next ‘high’). Hence the problem with cocaine, nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, sugar, sex, gambling, shopping etc. — they all cause the release of dopamine. Newness also triggers dopamine (hence our addiction to our mobiles). 

The clearer and more visual the objective/vision, the more dopamine that gets secreted— It’s a mini reward/taster of the future feeling we can look forward to once completed. Then we get slightly more doses of dopamine as we get closer to the end, thus keeping us on track.

Serotonin – Serotonin and Oxytocin grease the social machine. Serotonin is the leadership chemical. It fills us with pride. It makes us feel strong and confident. It’s the feeling we get when others value us and our contribution. 

Oxytocin – Oxytocin is the chemical of love. It’s the feeling we get when in the company of the people we are really close to. It rewards us for being social. It makes us feel accepted. Oxytocin relieves stress, boosts our immune system, increases our interest in work and improves our cognitive skills and creativity. It also increases our libido. 

Oxytocin is contagious. The person who does the act of kindness gets a shot of Oxytocin. The receiver gets a dose — and the people who saw it also get a boost. This helps connect everyone together. 

Cortisol – If Oxytocin helps boost the immune system, Cortisol strangles it. Interestingly Cortisol actually inhibits the secretion of Oxytocin, the chemical that is responsible for empathy.

Cortisol is part of the defence system in our body. When the body detects a perceived danger, Cortisol is activated, which in turn tiggers adrenalin. Between the two of them, they close down all periphery systems (including our immune system) allowing focused activity of flight or fight. This archaic response mechanism was fine when we could meet a sabre-tooth tiger, but not so relevant in the corporate environment. The trouble is, our body cannot detect the difference so over-reacts. If we live in an environment (be it work or home) where there is constant criticism/judging, there is a sense of insecurity (as Google call it, Psychological safety – Ed), then our body moves into a state of ‘high alert’. If we are in this environment day after day, our bodies are in a constant state of cortisol over-dosing. Cortisol plays havoc with our digestive system and blood glucose level. It increases our blood pressure, inflammatory response and also impairs cognitive judgment. Cortisol also increases aggression and suppresses our sexual drive — no wonder so many people are ill at work.

Working together

Collaboration – Most of the great things achieved in life are done by teams of people and rarely by sole individuals working alone. So our true greatness will come from working well with other people rather than from our own brilliance. Yet we are living in a time where we are creating environments that make it harder and harder to co-operate with others. 

We need to move to a place that supports team work. We need to encourage trust and respect in each other. Thus, a supportive and well-managed workplace is better for one’s health. Autonomy and self determination breeds health and happiness (hence why there is greater job satisfaction amongst the self-employed).

People tend not to leave a bad job. A study in 2011 revealed that up to one-third of all people surveyed wanted to leave their jobs but only 1.5% actually did. It’s like many a bad relationship: Even if they don’t like it, they don’t leave.

Tough times – Poverty drives togetherness (wealth drives independence and isolation). Our ancestors learned that in times of adversity, working together helped them not only survive but thrive. We do not face the same dangers as our ancestors. We face different ones. During challenging times, we are more likely to survive if we work together. Ironically adversity often brings the best out in people.

3M’s culture revolves around innovation. 3M achieves this through a culture of  collaboration and sharing — which is rewarded (‘Innovation through interaction’ is one of their mottos, with 80% of its patents having more than one inventor). “At 3M we’re a bunch of ideas, we never throw an idea away because you never know when someone else will need it”.

The increasing destabilisation people are living with these days means there is even greater need for people to create safer, trusting, more supportive and collaborative circles. It’s better for our health (married people live longer than singles as they help support each other). Whenever we feel a real bond of trust and support from other people, it gives us the power to endure.

Collaboration through friendship – Only when we get to meet people properly, listen to what they have to say, try to understand their position, and seek a shared higher objective, can we hope to work better together. 

During the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, Congress mostly functioned well. The Democrats and the Republican’s worked well together behind the scenes to make things happen. Many of the politicians on different sides were personal friends and this helped to allow courteous grown-up conversations to take place. George McGovern (D) would harass Bob Dole (R) during the day, but then be seen drinking with him in the evening. Likewise, Tip O’Neill (D) and Bob Mitchell (R). That was the way business was conducted in those days. In 1994, The Republican Party took control of the house with Newt Gingrich as the speaker. He decided to shake things up. He instituted a policy that Politicians should spend an increasing percentage of their time back in their constituencies. This had unexpected consequences. The politicians spent less time meeting each other outside of work. This broke down the social cohesion that oiled the delicate power balance, resulting in conflict and a slowing-down of passing bills. People lost sight of the bigger benefits to society and instead got dragged back down into petty party politics. In January 2013, a public survey revealed an approval rating for congress of just 14% — below even second-hand car salesmen.

Esprit de corps – When asked, ‘What was one of your best days at work?’, it’s rarely the work itself. More often, it’s the camaraderie within group that is most fondly recalled. It can often be when a project has gone wrong. Our best days are when we helped each other overcome hardships. Working late, all pulling together — floods our body with oxytocin — rewarding us for collaborating.

Connecting emotionally – Emotional connection is critical. Not just positive emotions as demonstrated above but also negative ones. When people have been through a highly emotional event together (be it a new business pitch, a crisis, a project rushed through etc), it really helps bring people together. Likewise physical closeness breeds community (it’s more difficult if the team are spread around the world or in different buildings or on different floors). Furthermore, the frequency of meeting each other is also key to cementing that community.

Trends that caused the lack of psychological safety

1) The ‘me’ generation – After the second world war, optimism, and wealth dramatically increased.  People who delayed having children, could start laying down roots for their future generations. All told, 76 million people were born — a rise of 40% (this population bulge got nicknamed the ‘pig in a python’ as it moved along the snake as they aged). This generation were born into a time of growth and prosperity. Their parents often given them the things they never had. Thus unconsciously these parents bred a generation of ‘takers’ not ‘givers’. The baby boomers were given so much stuff they got addicted to the dopamine hit. Abundance breeds selfishness and laziness. The more we have the more we want, and the more we expect (ironically, the more we have the less we value it). Thus when the baby boomers came into ‘power’, they set-up systems and borders to protect what they had.

2) When firing became the norm – On August 5th, 1981, President Reagan ordered the firing of 11,359 air traffic controllers in a dispute over pay and conditions. This seismic action defined a new standard of behaviour: it was okay to get rid of people. After that, the practice of laying-off staff became accepted policy to manage profit. Careers were ended to make the finances work. The unwritten contract between employee and owner was being ripped up. Trust was shredded. 

Jack Welch, CEO of GE would fire the bottom 10% of his Managers who were not contributing to brand share growth, gaining him the nickname, ‘Neutron Jack’. With such high profile actions, such behaviour soon spread. People were seen as a commodity, less an asset. On the surface, his strategy appears successful (GE sales rose from $26.8b to $130b), but digging deeper, we see the increase was in-line with overall stock market growth (A rising tide lifts all ships). Welch later-on called the single number focus on shareholder wealth “The dumbest idea in the world”.

3) The shift to profit as the most important factor – Milton Friedman, the highly influential economist, said there was only one responsibility for a company — and that was to increase profit (within the rules).  So we saw a shift from organisations as social institutions to becoming purely focused on financial gain.  

Meckling and Jensen, two academics, wrote a paper in 1976 about shareholder value. This also contributed to the shift towards senior executives’ bonuses being directly linked to share price. What you reward is what you get. 

With the financial markets now demanding quarterly reporting of increased profits, the pressure is constantly growing on business leaders to drive these profits at almost any cost. We are losing the social ethics and morals of businesses. We are increasingly seeing companies exploring tax loop holes and ‘bending the rules’ (with supposed head offices in Ireland , etc.). Enron imploded over serious fraudulent activities. BP caused the deaths and contamination of a whole ecosystem because it put profit above safety.

20 April 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 people and causing five million drums of crude oil to leak into the Gulf of Mexico. By 2005, the Deep Water Horizon oil rig was $58m over budget and was costing an extra $1m a day. During three years prior, BP had racked up 760 safety violations. Profit trumped safety. The reality was this was short-term thinking. In the end, the disaster cost BP $24.4bn in fines and costs (let alone share price dropping from $59.88 in March 2010 to $40 in Feb 2013 – $39.59 in Dec 2018).

Strategies to rectify

So how does a leader go about rectifying the situation? Sinek proposed five strategies:

  1. Bring people together
  2. Keep it manageable — obey Dunbar’s number
  3. Meet the people you help
  4. Give people time, not just money
  5. Be patient — the rule of seven days and seven years

Rule 1: Bring people together – As great as the internet is to help connect communities, it cannot create deep trusting relationships.  You can’t build meaningful business relationship either over Skype calls. There is no such thing as ‘virtual’ trust. This has to be done face-to-face. There is a magic that happens when we listen, talk, touch a person for real.

We can say the cruellest things to people when distanced from us — things you would never say to a person face-to-face For example, 25% of all American teenagers claim to have experienced cyber bullying.

Rule 2: Keep it manageable — Obey Dunbar’s number of 150 – The number comes from research conducted by the British Psychologist, Robin Dunbar. Communities start to fall apart above 150 people. The earliest tribes of Homo sapiens maxed out at around 150 — the same with the Bushmen of Africa. The Marines keep their companies below 150. Above that, it’s impossible to know everyone. Communication is easier and quicker when the numbers are kept lower. This ‘knowing’ each other is the glue that creates a community. When we ‘know’ who is in the community, we build trust with each other as well as a deep sense of identity. And this identification breeds self-protection of that community. We look after our own. The more we know each other the greater the ties of trust and loyalty. 

Thus, it’s key for any leader to create a real sense of identity for people to coalesce around and see themselves as ‘one’. Socials, Management walkabouts and engaging with people outside of meetings all play a critical role in helping to knit a community together. If we don’t do this, people will splinter off and will not feel connected (that’s why working remotely/from home causes some problems). 

Gore Tex will build another factory rather than let staff exceed 150

Rule 3: Meet the people you help – Only when you really meet your customers face-to-face, does the impact of the work your organisation does really sink-in. This is significantly more powerful than any powerpoint presentation full of facts and figures about them.

Wells Fargo invited in real customers to explain what difference their loan had made to their lives. It had a profound impact on their staff. Their perspective changed from ‘hitting the numbers of loans’ to ‘helping people in their lives’. This in turn impacted the quality of interaction with their customers.

In one experiment, simply showing the photograph of the patient to the Radiographer significantly improved their diagnostic accuracy.

Rule 4: Give them time, not just money – The trouble with money is it’s relative. $100 to one person is a lot. To another it’s nothing. But time is finite. Giving away some of your time is so much more valuable than giving money. We judge a boss (or any person) by the quality and quantity of time they give to us. Undivided real attention suggests you really care. It acknowledges and validates them.

Rule 5: Be patient – We live in a dopamine fuelled, speed obsessed world of ‘Now’. However, building trust takes time. Most great things can’t be rushed.


The book makes compelling reading but I’m left with the question, ’Is it an impossible quest that everyone will find happiness in their jobs?’

The book has a tendency to overdo the negativity of the future scenarios. Read this book and you think the world has gone to wrack and ruin. It’s easy to cite individual instances of where profit focus has caused major problems. But of course there will be equally as many great examples of organisations who also pray at the altar of shareholder value and still do great things and are wonderful places to work (are these not some of the key principles/benefits of Capitalism)?

The book is repetitive, and meanders into other areas (such as societal issues). Frankly the book should stick to its core thesis around organisations. It’s caught in the classic malaise of having a key hypothesis (that could be summarised in 20 pages that’s gets dragged out to fill over 220 pages — because that’s the accepted minimum length of business books).

Finally, the fault of all these books is they try to simplify management/leadership down to one key precept. Which we all know is nonsense!

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Book summary of THE POWER OF HABIT Why we do what we do and how to change – by Charles Duhigg.

The power of habit



We live in unconscious habits. These most of the time are beneficial and help us short circuit complexity in decision-making. However, sometimes we get caught into negative habits. The book suggests a simple model to help us understand the forming and breaking of habits: Cue -> Routine -> Reward.  The best way to switch a habit is to stick with the same cue and reward but substitute the routine.


General principles about habits

We live in patterns of behaviour – Research by Duke university has found that over 40% of our behaviours are driven by habits. Habits saves us energy. It creates effortless behaviour.

Habits make for easier decision making – Habits help remove unnecessary decision-making as it takes standard activities and creates short-cuts. Habits reduce the amount of cognitive activity the brain needs (as shown through brain activity scans), allowing the brain to be more engaged in other areas.

Unconscious behaviour – The reality is very little of our behaviours are controlled by our conscious state of thinking. Even if we are aware of the behaviour, we find it very difficult to stop it (as the conscious brain does not have control over that ‘department’.)

Behaviours become self-perpetuating –  Once you have done something one way, then it is more likely you will do it the same way next time. So to build a habit, keep doing it.

Small rewards can create big habits – Only if a behaviour gets rewarded will we use that behaviour pattern again. if it keeps rewarding us then we keep on using it, until it becomes engrained as a habit.

Easy come/hard to go – Habits are fairly easy to develop but devilishly hard to stop. Sometimes it’s easier to develop a new habit than change an older, less healthy one.

The habit cycle – There are good habits and bad habits. Each of these live in a simple cycle: Cue -> Ritual -> Reward. If we can understand what these three  components are in any situation, we  can change behaviours.


Habit cycle

Making new feel like old – Habits take time to develop and you need to support it to ensure it grows. So how do you get people to stay with something unfamiliar? You need to clothe it in familiar stuff long enough for it to become familiar.

Making new feel like old – During the second world war, quality meat for the masses was scarce. So, the US government had to think of ways of getting people to eat organs (liver, kidney, heart etc). The key was to dress the unfamiliar in familiar clothing. Thus, they developed old recipes with these new meats such as steak AND KIDNEY pie.

Sandwiching new in the middle of old – ‘Hey Ya! ‘by Outkast became a massive hit in the summer of 2003. But it took time for the record label Arista to master its success. Radio stations use algorithms to forecast listener’s habits to create their play lists to keep listeners tuned in. Hit song science has deconstructed a new song to predict its likelihood of success. ‘Hey Ya!’ was one of the best performers ever. However, when played out, listeners hated it so much, 1/3rd of people tuned to a different station! That was because it was too different from the stuff that was being played. Thus, they needed to get people used to its difference by sandwiching it between two sticky songs such as ‘Breathe’ by Blu Cantrell (a ‘sticky’ song is one where there is no station change during its playing). That way, people were ‘softened up’ to the song, allowing it to grow on them.

Identity – We become what we constantly do: Identity drives behaviour and behaviour drives identity. Habits create consistent behaviour. And consistent behaviour starts to influence identity (cf the occasional runner who then runs more frequently until they redefine themselves as an athlete). Likewise, negative behaviours also get locked-in through identity. When in groups we identify with, we are very likely to follow the behaviour of that group.

Cultural derived habits – Culture can create the unconscious rules of a society that guides behaviour. This therefore creates habits often through rituals (cf the Church or Alcoholics Anonymous). So, shifting the culture can influence behaviour and instil new habits.

The power of weak ties – Research has shown that we tend to do more for weak ties (i.e. 1-2 people removed – friends of friends) as we want to remain bonded to the stronger ties who are connected to those weaker ties. It’s to do with a sense of social obligation.

The power of weak ties – Rosa Parks protest on the bus in Alabama in December 1955 was not the first of such insurrections. The reason it took off and helped prick a nation’s conscience was the power of her connections across multiple groups. This meant her support rapidly spread. She had what sociologists call ‘weak ties’. They deeply cared for her so were prepared to get involved. People who jump from one network to another are actually more powerful than those at the heart of one group.

The power of weak ties – Rick Warren created one of the largest Christian communities in the world (in Saddleback). He built it from nothing but its success was from encouraging people to take part in small groups. Every new member was assigned to a small group that met every week (they have over 5000 groups). It’s the social pressure of weak ties in these small groups that created the obligation to attend. This transformed people’s behaviour into habits.

Life stages shift behaviours –  The most common reason that creates a habit switch is a change in life stages – e.g. going to college, marriage, losing weight, pregnancy etc. Thus, if you catch people at these life changing stages, offering them enticing promotions, you can potentially install new habits to shop with you for their changing needs.

Life stages triggers new habits – A father was incensed that his daughter was sent special offers on maternity products. Later-on it became clear that she was indeed pregnant. The offers were based on her past purchase habits and web-site searches. Target identify a person based on buyer data (credit card, loyalty card, voucher redemption etc.) and then track their purchases, building up a unique picture of them (they claim to have identified c50% of all in-store sales to specific identified people). They were then able to serve them more relevant offers (and also avoid annoying them with irrelevant offers). For example, if they saw you regularly bought a breakfast cereal from Target, it would mail a special offer for milk (hoping to shift the habit of buying milk elsewhere to buying it alongside your cereal purchases). Target are able to track changes in buyer behaviour to assess changes in life, based on certain key patterns based on historic tracking of other people. Hence, when a person starts buying vitamins (esp. magnesium and zinc), it’s a strong indicator they are pregnant. Target were able to identify 25 different products that suggested a high likelihood of early pregnancy. Furthermore, they worked out what trimester they were in. In the end, they had to disguise the fact they knew so much about a person and surround the pregnancy product offering with more innocuous offerings as well.


Cue – To create a habit, you need to first identify a very specific cue (The cue can be any sensory medium – sight, sound, touch, feeling or smell), then create a powerful reward that can be delivered by the routine inbetween. Research has shown that people are more likely to stick to habits if there is a very clear, specific cue (such as going straight into their bedroom and getting into running gear).

Identifying the cues – Alcoholics Anonymous have helped millions of people. Their 12-step process does not work at a psychological level but at a behavioural level. One of the things they do is list all the cues that trigger them to drink. Then they get them to list all the rewards and benefits they get from the drink. Only then can they develop revised routines to create new habits (such as attending sessions).

 Cue that triggers unconscious routine – Tony Dungy finally got his break to be the head coach of The Buccaneers Football team. His philosophy was simple: Install an unconscious pattern of play, so that the play is fast, effortless and unconscious (and so does not get knocked-off by the stresses of the occasion). He recognised it was very difficult to destroy a habit but easy to modify it. In this case he kept the cue and reward the same, but worked on changing the routine.  This led to endless drills to install the new behaviours.  He locked set routines against set cues. He became the only coach to reach the play-offs in ten consecutive years.

 Cue that triggers unconscious routine – The army drums into people unconscious habits that will be automatically executed without questioning when cued.

Cue that triggers unconscious routine – Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer dealt with his anxiety and nerves by locking himself into tight routines that allowed no room for emotion or thoughts to enter. He drilled himself to become a swimming automaton. In his training, he has even practiced for the unexpected (e.g. swimming in the dark).


Keystone habits – A keystone habit is one that triggers other behaviours/habits. For example, for dieters, food journaling created a structure that helped other habits to flourish. Six months into the study, people who kept daily food records had lost twice as much weight as everyone else.

Keystone habits – Paul O’Neil was appointed the CEO of The Aluminium Company of America (i.e. Alcoa). He set out a controversial vision of making it the safest company in America (a tall order for a company that deals in molten metals everyday). He knew that to change a lot of things he had to have a laser focus on just one thing (and that would ‘sweep up’ the other changes required – as to deliver zero injuries would mean a root and branch restructure of the whole organisation). He knew he had to unite a fractured management and workforce, so chose an area they could all align on. He instilled a culture (i.e. a habit) of continuous and never-ending improvements and he set clear metrics on safety for the organisation and the individual: He allowed any person to shut down a line; He ‘celebrated’ failure (as a way to learn);  He focused on the root cause of failure; He promoted people who fully supported the vision and symbolically fired a senior executive who failed to report a fairly minor incident.

Organisational routines – Sadly in organisations, we often need a disaster to force a change in routines (e.g. The Challenger disaster in 1986).

Identifying habits from failure and breakdown – An arrogant surgeon would not tolerate criticism from ‘lesser’ staff. One day, he operated on the wrong side of a patient’s brain resulting in his death. This (amongst others) led to a change in procedure that allowed anyone in the operating theatre to openly challenge.

When An evolutionary theory of economic change was published in 1982 it was largely ignored, but it contained the essence of why change is so difficult in organisations. Nelson & Winter had trudged through thousands of pages documenting change programmes in organisations and discovered an insight: “Much of a firm’s behaviour is best understood as a reflection of general habits and strategic orientations coming from the firm’s past.”  It may appear an organisation is making rational decisions, but often it is asleep to the patterns of decision making from a past (that has now metamorphosed). It holds onto long term beliefs, values, habits, prejudices, processes and behaviours that lock them out of seeing the new future. This then drives unconsciously the many micro decisions made across an organisation but all its staff. This leads to the organisation seeing only the angle of ‘truth’ the organisation wants to see (and people who suggest alternate truths get mocked, put down or rejected from the organisation). The departmental structures, the processes, the reward systems are all infected by this ‘organisational memory’. Thus, we see that habits help fast track decision-making but they can also become traps.

The book also blows out the myth that organisations are ‘happy families’ with shared common goals. In fact, most organisations are full of fiefdoms and power struggles, where departments focus on their own agendas (and in some cases, try to put other departments down as a way to secure access to the limited resources available). Furthermore, they create peer rivalry to prevent a coup and so reduce the threat to their own position. People ‘learn’ the behaviours of the organisation and when they get to become department heads, further continuing these dynastic behaviours. All this tension is kept at a manageable level (so company civil war does not break out) by other processes and habits. If you were to join an organisation and ask ‘How to get on in this organisation?’, you would not hear what is printed in the joining manual. You would hear of personalities, informal power structures, relational affiliations and conflicts. It would paint a different organisational structure and show the real path of how to get things done. Unless you can make the right connections (and truces) through an organisation (or the stakeholders outside) then you will fail.

Fiefdom’s – One of the reasons behind the Kings Cross Tube disaster in November 1987 was the silo’d attitude the different departments had. It was run by four ‘Barons’. They tolerated each other as long as they did not stray into each other’s territory. There were a lot of ‘unwritten rules’ (such as the fire department would only be contacted in extremis). No-one inside the station knew how the fire sprinkler system worked or was allowed to use the fire extinguishers. The Fire service were not allowed to use the water hydrants underground as no-one had permission to use them. Furthermore, no-one on site had a blueprint of all the tunnels that would have helped the firemen rescue some of the 31 people killed that day. Out of this disaster it created a radical restructuring of the organisation. Likewise, in hospitals and airlines, public disclosure of mistakes is helping to lock-out institutional failure.

Corporate habits – Starbucks prides itself in helping to develop life-skills in its people. In their first year of employment, its new recruits spend at least 50 hours in training. The key skill they develop is self-discipline (Research has shown that self-discipline is a greater predictor of grades than IQ). The key area of discipline was emotional self-control – they want to put a shot of joy (not anger) into every cup – including those stressed-out customers. They taught them how to ‘park’ their own issues & emotions and instead focus solely on their customers. Starbucks identified the key cues, developed alternate routines, and then encouraged the Managers to reward staff who had successfully dealt with a challenging situation. One technique they developed was the LATTE approach: Listen to your customer; Acknowledge their complaint; Take action, before finally Explaining why it happened.

Corporate habits – Deloitte Consulting are taught about how to deal with critical  moments that matter with their clients and colleagues: ‘Get curious -> Say what no-one else will -> Apply the 5/5/5 rule in how to respond’.


Reward – If you want to develop a habit, the reward must significantly outweigh the costs for you to keep on doing it (committed runners talk about the real sense of personal achievement they get from running).

Identifying the reward – In Iraq, a commanding officer noticed the pattern of behaviours around violence. The longer the crowd stayed together the more likely it would eventually escalate to violence. He noticed that what held people there was the food and drink vendors that would appear. He therefore stopped these sellers coming, which led to a rapid dispersement of the rioters.

Cue Vs Reward – When Fabreze was first launched it flopped. They discovered that people in smelly homes do not notice the smell (thus the cue of poor odour did not trigger use of the product). They identified people instead used Fabreze as a reward (the cue being the tidied house rather than bad smells).

Identifying the rewards – A women suffering from severe nail biting was invited to record the number of times she was cued to bite her nails. This helped bring her attention to something which most times was unconscious. Then the therapist asked her to identify the rewards she got from biting them. She then gave her a ‘competing routine’ – i.e. every time she felt bored, she was to put her hands under her legs (thus creating a physical stimulation/reward similar to biting).

Discovering the right reward – The YMCA commissioned data analysts to help them improve the habit of training in their gyms. They found it was the human connection that was the real reward that made them come back.

Create craving through anticipation – To lock people in a habit you need to make the reward random in delivery. Research has shown brain activity lifts up before the reward – i.e. they anticipate the reward. When that reward is then NOT received it creates a CRAVING that amplifies the desire of the reward. That sense of disappointment becomes even more powerful than the pleasure of the reward – so they keep doing the activity to remove that pain of disappointment. This can lead to obsessive compulsive behaviour – where the rat keeps pressing the lever, the gambler keeps playing, or the golfer keeps swinging. Scientists have found that habits create similar craving reactions addicts have to their drug.

Anticipation/Craving – Claude Hopkins is one of the key admen who first started using these principles in his advertising. In the 1930’s he revolutionised the health habits with Pepsodent by recognising an unexploited cue (the film on your teeth) and linked it to a powerful reward (cool tingling sensation). The key was to create an ANTICIPATION of the reward as that builds the power of the reward. They created a craving for that cool tongue tingling sensation.

Reward: Creating anticipation – Ads create habits: The music, the imagery etc. (i.e. cues) gets linked to a routine (e.g. buying/consuming their product) with the promised reward bought to life in a dramatic, enticing way. You only need to cue the MacDonald’s arches to start salivating over the thought of their French Fries. You see an ad (say of Marlboro cigarettes) and it makes you think of the future rewards it offers you.

Almost wins – Reza Habib, a cognitive neuroscientist asked twenty-two people to lie inside an fMRI  machine and watch a slot machine spin round. Half of the participants were pathological gamblers while the other half were people who gambled socially but didn’t exhibit any problematic behaviours. The slot machine was programmed to deliver three outcomes: a win, a loss, and a ‘near miss’ (in which the slots almost matched up but failed to align). To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. People without a gambling problem were better at recognising that a near miss means you still lose. This is why gambling organisations often set-up machines to give you an ‘almost win’ (as that encourages them to keep on playing).

Changing habits

The difficulty in breaking habits – The issue with habit is they become so ingrained, so powerful that even if we have a conscious awareness that they are not good for us, we cannot seem to stop doing them. Once the cue has been fired we are slaves to the habit. You can’t extinguish a habit, you can only change it.

Breaking bad habits – Angie Bachmann (pseudonym) was getting bored at home. So, she started visiting the local casino, initially gambling small amounts that she could afford to lose. After a while she got good, making a fair return ($6K one time, $2K another time). This led her to start gambling more frequently with bigger bets. However, after a while she started losing. She gambled harder, borrowing money to try to re-win her loses. The first time round she clocked up debts of $20K. She stopped, rebuilt her life but at one point the cue was so strong she was re-triggered back into her bad habits again. One day alone she lost $250K. She had inherited her parent’s estate, but lost it all to gambling. She calculated she lost in total $900K.

Belief – Belief is critical to change a habit (if you think you can’t change, you won’t). So, to change a habit you must believe you can change. Part of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous programme is a belief in a higher order to help. It helps recovering alcoholics deal with the inevitable glitches along the way.

Willpower – Changing habits is hard and takes time. Therefore, you need to persist and not give-up at the first failure.

Developing willpower – Willpower is learnable. Students were split into two teams to test their willpower.  They were both given two plates: a plate of cookies and a plate of radishes. One group was told to eat the cookies but resist the radishes. The other team told the opposite. They were then told to wait 15 minutes for next stage of the test. in the meantime, there was a simple puzzle they had to solve (in reality it was very difficult). Those who had eaten the cookies and ‘resisted’ the cookies tended to stay with the puzzle for 60% longer, suggesting our willpower gets weakened (e.g. when tired, drunk or emotional). This led the scientist to conclude that willpower is like a muscle. It can easily get exhausted but with exercise it can develop. They also found willpower developed in one area does spill over into others. Thus, sports or taking up a musical instrument teaches you self-discipline that is transferrable into other areas of life.

How to change habits – The book suggests four stages:

  • Raising the habit to consciousness – identify the routine – When in a habit, we are often unconscious of the behaviours. Hence to change a habit we need to raise our conscious awareness of exactly what we are doing. The first stage is to recognise the habit loop we are caught in (Cue -> Behaviour -> Reward). The easiest part of the pattern to change is the behaviour – as long as you keep the other two elements the same.
  • Isolate the cue – All routines are triggered by a cue. Cancel the cue and you stop the routine. Take for example, emails. If you switch off the inbox ‘ping’ cue, you take away the compulsive routine of constantly checking your system. The issue is the cue is often clouded by many other elements happening at the same time. There are five categories cues typically fall into: Location, Time, Emotional state, Other people, Immediate preceding action. Every time you feel the urge (or catch yourself in the act), write down what the cue might be in each of the five areas.
  • Experiment with some rewards – To overcome a habit we must understand which craving is driving the habit. The key is to identify the real need/benefit – e.g. is hitting the biscuits to do with boredom or low sugar level? You will need to try different behaviours to see what fits into your life and critically to see if it gives you a similar/better level of reward. If it does not, then it is unlikely to be a satisfactory replacement. Clearly you can ‘supplement’ a reward (e.g. you give yourself an additional treat). The author suggests writing down how you think/feel immediately after the activity. They suggest leaving it for fifteen minutes before doing any other activity that might trigger the reward. This helps let you know if the behaviour you are testing really did deliver the reward you needed.
  • Have a plan – Develop a clear strategy in advance of the cue. If/When…(Cue)…Then…(Behaviour) -> Reward. Then try it out. Sometimes it may work better than other days. But the more you try it, the more likely you will ‘scratch’ out the old behaviour and replace it with a more empowering habit.


This is an optimistic book. “Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom — and the responsibility — to remake them”.

It is full of interesting anecdotes and scientific evidence that keeps you turning the pages. That said, the book does meander a bit (making things into ‘habit’ when we would not normally describe them as such – e.g. socialised behaviour).

However, the key issue is the book’s overly simplistic model to habit change. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet (though intensive treatments and support can work). We assume that by ‘plugging-in’ the co-ordinates of the model that we can then control behaviour. So, the key question we need to ask ourselves: If you follow this will you get change? Behaviour change is usually much more complex than that. Take eating too much. In theory when we get the cue (e.g. an emotion) we then switch eating chocolate for a banana (as both release a sugar hit), but we know it does not work as simply as that. Foresight’s obesity system map suggests otherwise:


Also, there are other ways to change habits (E.g. laws – cf seat belt wearing in cars). Furthermore, all the summaries of behavioural economics demonstrate the power of often unconscious’s influences on our behaviour.

That said, The Power of Habit is an enjoyable book, and readers will find it useful – even if only to understand why they do some of those ‘cookie’ things they do.








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Book summary of Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini

Summarised by Paul Arnold – Marketing/Comms Strategist

The book in a nutshell

The highest achievers spend time crafting what they did and said before making their pitch.

Research has shown that unconscious priming can help ‘pre-frame’ a person to think in a certain way.

The basic principle of pre-suasion is all about the front-loading of attention. By guiding initial focus it’s possible to influence the audience.

The book explores a wide range of ways of ‘pre-framing’ people.

“The readiness is all” Hamlet Act 5 Scene 2

The book

Great persuaders spend time upfront creating a positive psychological frame before trying to influence. They recognise that the ‘pre-sell’ is of equal importance as the sell itself.

The ‘pre-sell’ can help prime people to think in a certain way that is supportive of your argument.

Cialdini identified six key principles from his first book: Reciprocation, Liking, Social proof, Authority, Scarcity and Consistency. Cialdini proposes that you can magnify the power of these by inferencing them in the set up. For example, if using authority is your key angle of influence, suggesting the idea of authority beforehand (in say a personal story) helps focus attention onto authority.

Priming – A Toronto based consultancy in pitching would say, “As you can tell, I’m not going to be able to charge you a million dollars for this…” helped ensure his $75,000 fee was acceptable.

Priming – In an experiment, the amount of money a person would be prepared to spend at a restaurant goes up if called Studio 97 as opposed Studio 17.

Focusing attention – the key tenet of pre-suasion is to drive attention in a certain direction that sets a person up to be persuaded. Since we live in a world of hyper-distractions, the more we can influence what the person is focusing on, the greater the chance of persuasion.

 “The press might not be successful most of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling them what to think about” – Bernard Cohen

 The book reveals a wide range of techniques to try to gain and keep focus:

Power of questions – Questions direct our attention. Thus, the initial prompt makes the brain travel in that direction. So be aware of the bias in any question.

Questions – Any question forces a focus. In an experiment Canadians were asked either “Are you happy with your social life?” or “Are you unhappy with your social life?”. What you ask is what you get. Unhappy focused questioners then seek out experiences in their life that fit with the question. Surprise surprise they find them and so declare themselves to be unhappy. The opposite of course happens to those asked if they are happy with their social life.

 Pre-questions – To encourage shoppers to take part in a questionnaire, the sales people pre-suaded with an opening question, “Excuse. do you regard yourself as a helpful person?” Volunteer rates rose from 29% to 77%. Likewise, to get people to try a new product/provide contact details they asked people if they considered themselves to be adventurous (33% -> 77%).

Co-creation – A sub-form of question. The more someone can be involved in the development of a proposal, the more likely they will ‘buy’ into it, and commit to making it happen.

Asking advice – Likewise, if you ask advice then people are more conducive to being persuaded (than by didactic lecturing). Gaining their input is a key step to influence as we create a ‘merging’ of ideas.

Saliency – What is salient (i.e. front of mind) becomes important (even if it is not important). Research has shown that it is not necessary the most pertinent issue that influences but that which captures the most attention (cf Kahneman’s WYSIATI – What you see is all there is). Thus, it’s not always a case of driving behaviour change through shifting beliefs or attitudes but through merely raising saliency.

In the Cyanide/Tylenol infected crisis in 1982, the infected batches were identified to be lots 2880 and 1910. Surprisingly, these numbers then got played on the lottery at unprecedented levels. Not because people have some perverted sense of humour, but because unconsciously these have entered into their focus.

What’s focal is what’s causal – Thinking is linking. Anything ‘in field’ can play a role in influence – it’s all taken into account.

 Leaders are attributed much greater causal responsibility for the success (or failure) of a company – because they are the focal point of an organisation.

 In an experiment, people were asked to observe a conversation between a man and women from one of the two people’s perspectives. They were then asked who was more influential in the conversation, the respondents always felt it was the person whose face they were looking at.

 Blinkered attention – We find it really difficult to focus on more than one thing at a time Therefore, when you engage the brain with one concept, you reduce its attention onto something else. Like the magician, who makes you focus on one hand (you are then distracted from seeing what he is doing with his other hand).

The American administration, to deflect attention away from ‘Weapons of mass destruction’, invited journalists to live alongside the combat units. This meant they focused on human interest stories (93% of all stories filed) and tended to forget the bigger issues (2% stories covered WMD).

Disruption – When we change things, we create a disruption from the normal, that shifts attention.

Editors in film put in cuts, music shifts, silence etc. to drive focus.

Milton Erikson, the famous psychotherapist would deliberately lower his voice when he wanted to emphasise something. The patient then has to lean forward, creating greater focus.

Using the different senses – Any of the senses can be used to stimulate attention. For example, auditory.  Use of different language can trigger different areas of focus (cf how business often uses the language of war – battle, conquest, target etc.).

If you are trying to encourage people to think rationally, then using words like “What do you think about…?” will help prime that part of the brain versus “How do you feel about…?’.

Likewise, the use of music, or any emotional arousing stimulus (like photos) will start to influence that part of the brain to be more dominant immediately preceding it. Conversely you do not want to use stirring music if your argument is best won logically.

Emotion – The more emotionally charged something is, the greater the attention it creates. We always see a contagion of stories in the press after one event as our attention is drawn towards it.

When we are in a good mood, all things look rosier (and vice versa). Hence why given an unexpected welcomed gift raises tipping levels:

Unexpectedness – Diners were offered a piece of chocolate at the end of a meal. Tips went up by 3%. However, when the waitress invited them to take two chocolates each, tips rose to 14%. However, if the waitress gave one, left the table, then came back and offered them another, such was the unexpectedness tips rose by 21.3%.

Specific emotions have extra high potency such as sex and fear:

Sex – Sex attracts attention and is a well-used ploy in advertising. However, it is only relevant for products about attractiveness as it’s about capturing and then focusing attention.

Fear – As a rule, presenting the negative consequences works better than emphasising the positive benefits. However, to maximise its impact, you should offer an easy step to a solution (so as not to leave the audience in a place of stress and hence denial).

When 9/11 tragically took place, people abandoned planes and drove. Sadly, an extra 1,600 Americans died in car accidents as a direct result – six times more than the numbers killed in the only US plane crash in the following year.

Getting past ‘System 2’ – When tired, the logical brain (what Kahneman called System 2) cannot resist the pressure of the emotional brain (System 1). Likewise, if rushed, overloaded, preoccupied, stressed or indifferent, then critical (logical) thinking goes out the window.

Research found that well rested Soldiers would question orders to fire on hospitals. But when sleep deprived they would meekly obey. Similarly, in Police interrogation, people would confess (often to the wrong things) when sleep deprived. Interviews that have led to false confessions often last more than sixteen hours (vs four).

People had to choose from three cameras. One camera was expert rated best on eight out of twelve criteria, suggesting a clear advantage over the others. When people were given just 2 seconds per criteria, only 17% choose the clear winner. When given 5 seconds, 38% get it right and when unlimited time, it went up to 67%.

Authority/Expertise – Likewise the authority/expertise of someone will cause us to pay more attention to them than to others. The messenger IS the message. Who says is what makes what they say more powerful.  Again our ‘laziness’ in decision-making means we often blindly believe in the wisdom of experts and authority (and so rarely challenge them). Thus, if you want to influence, you should first ‘pre-sell’ your audience on your own expertise/authority.

Trustworthiness – If we trust someone we are much more likely to listen to them, believe in what they say and follow their advice (and vice versa if you don’t trust them). Trust is a hard-won concept that takes time to acquire. However, the authors suggest one way of quickly generating trust: Reveal a weakness. Rather than trying to suggest everything is perfect in your proposal/offering, it’s better to ‘come clean’ on an aspect that is not perfect. This honesty opens up trust. If there is an issue that you know your audience will pick on, it’s worth highlighting it yourself. Ideally when expressing the weakness, you soften its impact with a suggested way of resolving it.

Revealing a weakness – At a restaurant do you trust the waiter who says everything is great on the menu, or the one who says, “Personally, I’d avoid the lamb…”

Trust – A highly successful salesmen would say he had accidentally left something in his car, and would it be okay for him to let himself in/out of their house? The insight was that no-one lets a person in/out of their own house unless there is some level of trust.

Countering a flaw – “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble women BUT I have the heart of a King, and the King of England too!’ – Queen Elizabeth I – Her speech to the troops at Tilbury in 1588 when preparing for the expected invasion from Spain.

Counter-arguments are often more powerful than arguments This is because it not only devalues the argument but also brings into question the trust in the other person

Liking – The more you like a person, the more attention you will give them (and vice versa if you do not like them).

Compliments engender liking. They nourish us emotionally.

“I can live for two months on a good compliment” – Mark Twain.

Chinese students who received a flyer complimenting them (“We are contacting you because you are fashionable and stylish”) were more likely to shop at the retailer.

People are more likely to ‘accept’ your reply if you say “That’s a great question!”

Background – The background may appear unimportant but unconsciously it gets noticed and thus can influence. Hence where an ad appears, which shops a product is sold in etc. all become background influences.

Places can also influence. Sometimes a change of venue opens up our thinking. Thus merely ‘dressing’ a room for a meeting can change the mindset of those who attend

An on-line store selling mattresses received very different sales results depending if they had clouds in the background versus pennies.

Product placements – Including products in familiar shows leads to positive associations. But research has shown that the most obvious ones gets ‘discounted’ as the viewer recognises the commercial relationship. However, subtle placement influences buyer perception more because they worked their magic unconsciously.

Evaluation – Merely inviting someone to evaluate a brand (without telling them what makes your offering better) will lead to increased persuasion as they will now have directed attention.

In an experiment, managers were asked to evaluate in more detail only one of four different strategic options. Without fail, they recommended the option they had evaluated.

Another way is to deliberately invite comparison with other competitors that helps dramatically bring to focus your point of difference:

In an experiment, a pair of sofas were compared (Dream and Titan). Both were similar except for the cushions (Dream’s were softer, Titan’s harder). In the tests, people preferred the sturdier cushions of Titan (58% vs 42%). A second group were then shown four sofas. Three of them had the same hard cushions as Titan. So now Dream (the only one with softer cushions) stood out as being different, leading to a shift in persuasion (77% in favour of Dream).

Self-Relevancy – We are automatically drawn to anything to do with us (cf mentioning your name is often enough). Data is allowing us to more closely identify what is specifically relevant to a person, to more personalise the message to them.

Curiosity – Curiosity is a powerful magnet to both capture and hold your attention (watch any ‘soap’ and you’ll see it at work at the end of every episode).

In research, the ad that was recalled was the one that was stopped 5 seconds before it was due to end. This memory recall lasted two weeks later.

One strategy developed by Somerset Maugham (who found it very difficult to write) was to finish his work half-way through a paragraph. Then he found it easier to pick up the next day. Likewise, Cialdini starts his lectures with an enigma (which he would not answer until the end).

Sharpness – The more concrete, vivid and real we can communicate something to someone the greater its ability to capture our attention as well as to influence (as they really ‘get it’). Conversely, if you make language too flowery, or too full of technical language, or use a difficult to read typeface/colour, then this diminishes its ‘cognitive ease of processing’.

An analysis of 89 randomly selected companies on the NYSE found that in initial trading of stocks, those companies with easier to pronounce names outperformed those with difficult to pronounce names.

Fund raisers were shown one of two pieces of communication about the value of contributing to the cause they would be soliciting for. One group were given it on a simple piece of paper, whilst the other group also had a photo of a person winning a race. The race winners group raised 60% more donations.

Metaphor – We are lazy thinkers and will often drop into metaphors/similes/analogies to help us make sense of things. Thus, suggesting something is like something else can heavily influence our mindset/focus. If you describe crime as a ‘spreading virus, infecting the city’, it will create more support (as well as drive a specific type of action).

“If you want to change the world, change the metaphor” – Joseph Campbell

Social proof – People are powerful influences – We are unconsciously seduced by other people’s behaviour. It’s the wisdom of the crowd. The greater the consensus (or risk), the safer/more likely we will follow that decision.

The best way to sell a dish in a restaurant is the describe it as ‘Most popular’. This makes dishes between 13-20% ordered more frequently. Likewise, Internet retailers use the power of social proof as well to drive sales (‘Other people who bought x also bought y’).

Validity –  If an energy provider says “You could save £xx” it is less effective than if you say “Others in your road ARE saving” as it is then more real credible.

Contagious behaviour – A Tennessee high school teacher reported a smell of gas. A hundred people went to the hospital that day with symptoms of gas inhalation. However, no gas leak was ever found. Likewise, a lecture on dermatology got all the students scratching.

Stereotypes – Due to our lazy thinking we drop into ‘heuristics’ – i.e. shortcuts. Stereotypes are one of these. Use of them guide our perception and thinking without any critical intervention.

Behaviour – Getting people to do certain things in advance can help precondition them for the next event.

In an experiment, it was found that people who had played violent video games were more prepared to deliver loud blasts of noise into another person’s ear. Likewise, those who had participated in prosocial games were then more prepared to help others afterwards (like cleaning up afterwards).

Reciprocation – If someone has done something for us unconditionally, we feel socially bound to ‘repay’ them – so will be more open to their influence (Research has shown that children as young as 2 have learned the rules)

Pre-giving – A hotel put a sign in the room that the hotel had made a gift to an environmental charity. This led to a 47% uplift in towels being recycled (versus when the message said the hotel would make a donation).

Reciprocation – Abu Jandal, Osama Bin Laden’s chief body guard refused to reveal information. After a while the interrogators noticed he did not eat the cookies. Further investigation revealed he was diabetic. So, they gave him sugar-free biscuits. This act of unexpected generosity partly paved the way for him to start sharing information.

Consistency – We all like to be consistent with our commitments and what we say. Therefore, in the pre-sell stage. If you can get your audience to commit to one small step (in the direction you want), then it dramatically increases your chance of success.

Priming honesty upfront – Insurance companies can reduce policyholder’s misreporting by getting people to sign an honesty pledge before they start to fill in the claims form.

Verbalising commitment – A blood donors service increased participation from 70% to 82.4% by getting people to verbalise their commitment by saying, “So we’ll mark you down as coming then?“ PAUSE TO CONFIRM.



Cialdini believed there is now a seventh principle to stack alongside his original six.

We listen to and respond better to people who are ‘like us’ (and less well to people who are ‘not like us’). It’s about shared identities. Our desire to belong means we seek out and try to ‘bond with others like us (as keeps us ‘safe’ and protected.

There are a number of ways of driving greater ‘unity’:

Similarities – Rapport often comes from similarities. People are more prepared to do things for people they share some common feature with – be it nationality, name, birthday, star sign, sports team etc. It creates a closer ‘us-ness’. Even using the same words, they use can increase likeness We even prefer brands that share the same letters in the alphabet as our name.

Kinship – Any way that we can invoke ‘we-ness’ will help pull people together (and means the opportunity to influence is greater. Thus, words like ‘Brothers’, ‘Sisters’, ‘Motherland’, ‘Heritage’, and ‘Our sovereignty’ will all increase the collective ‘us-ness’.  Likewise, to imply that another presenter is ‘not like us’ alienates them and reduces their power of influence.

Sameness – In the late 1930’s, the Japanese were accepting displaced Jews. In July 1940, 200 Jews queued outside the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania. The Consul General, Chiune Sugihara, signed their transit orders in open defiance of his seniors back in Japan. In the end, he helped save thousands of Jews – something that ultimately cost him his career – because he saw their ‘sameness’ rather than their difference.

Identification with each other – In 1942, after Japan had allied itself to Germany, there was pressure from the Reichstag to get rid of the Jews. When seniors of the Japanese High command consulted with Jewish leaders they asked, “Why do the Germans hate you so much?” Rabbi Kalisch replied, “Because we are Asians – like you”. That one statement cemented their ‘us-ness’ and Japan protected its Jewish community.

Shared behaviours – In the Soviet controlled Warsaw during the 60’s there was a lot of ceremonies, marches, pageants and general flag waving. The people were encouraged to attend and take part. Even though conditions were difficult, there was a shared camaraderie and ‘togetherness’ – a sense of pride in their nation. Thus songs, rituals, dances etc. all help create a sense of cohesion. Our general desire to belong means we will unconsciously also adopt many of the beliefs and values of that group that we want to belong to. The more you want to belong to that group, the greater the unconscious power to conform (you often find the more extreme zealots are outside on the edge of a group rather than necessarily at the centre – such is their desire to be accepted in).

Behaviour starts to pull people together. Those people who do the same thing are more likely to see themselves as one (versus other who do other things). Thus, the more you can get people to do the same thing then it’s more likely they will feel a greater sense of connection. Even very simple acts (like tapping together, singing a song together or walking in the same way) can create temporary togetherness.

Co-operation – In exercises where people have to co-operate (versus exercises where pitted against each other), those working together saw their partner to be more like them.

Arthur and Elaine Aron came up with a questionnaire that helped ensure greater success in building relationships. It involved asking 36 questions, where both have to answer before moving on. The questions start quite shallow (such as “What constitutes a perfect day for you?”) before going deeper and deeper (to questions such as “Of all the people in your family, whose death would be the most disturbing?”). This creates a shared exposure and opening up to the other person at a level not normally experienced with many other people. (

The ethics of persuasion

Cialdini admits to having been criticised in the past for providing unscrupulous people with tools to manipulate others.

Certainly, these principles likewise can be misused for the wrong issues. Cialdini counters (weakly) that he raises their awareness so we can protect ourselves against their use. He also rightly stresses It is unrealistic to expect applying pre-suasion is a guaranteed way to influence. The principles discussed here will work primarily at the margins on influence.

In a WikiLeaks, hyper transparent world, we need to do the right thing as we will be found out. Trust is hard won and easily lost (cf VW).

People who work in unethical companies also suffer: Lower performance levels, higher anxiety, greater sick days, higher staff turnover etc., The cost of these quickly mount up (especially if you include cost of litigation, hiring fees, increased wages to attract people etc.).



This is essentially another book on Behavioural Economics, focused on the principle of ‘priming’.

I found it a bit of a dull book to read (probably as read too many other similar books).

The book is a bit ‘flabby’ with lots of fill and repetition. It’s not a well-structured book (it took me ages to ‘edit’ it down into a more coherent piece).

As always, we need to take what is said with a degree of skepticism. Just because there is one piece of evidence (an experiment or whatever) that supports the hypothesis, that does not mean it is conclusively proven. There could well be many counter examples/experiments that either refute, or support an alternate hypotheses.




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Grit – The power of passion and perseverance By Angela Duckworth (Summarised by Paul Arnold, Strategic Planner,Facilitator and Trainer)

gritThe book in a nutshell

Grit is a key factor for success in life. Grit is a mindset of not giving up. It gives us the staying power to push on through the trials and tribulations and remain dedicated to the cause (that eventually leads to mastery and success).

Grit can be learned (but is often imprinted in us from our parents and culture). We need a belief that failures and setbacks are just learning lessons to catapult ourselves forward.

The driving engine of grit comes from having a compelling purpose that is deeply important for us (and in many ways defines us). It is further enhanced if what we are doing is also of value to other people. This helps galvanise and focus our efforts on the end goal without being distracted by the inevitable upsets and failures along the way.

A key to skill mastery is ‘deliberate practice’ as then we make incremental steps of improvement every time.

The book

At Westpoint (The US Military Academy) 14,000 students apply. Only 1200 people meet the rigorous academic, physical and psychological standards to be admitted. Yet 20% of them will drop out before graduation. So after all the testing, why do 240 fail each year? Research has shown they lacked grit (i.e. a ‘never give up’ mentality). Grit is a key factor behind many successful people (in business, arts and sport). Grit is the mental toughness to keep on pushing through the tedium, the tough times and the failures. Most successful people failed before they succeeded. It was their tenacity and determination to not give up that led to their eventual success.

The reality is all people are unlucky some of the time (and lucky some of the time). Successful people accept the swings and roundabouts of life and do not give up. Indeed they tend to use the downers as a motivator to push on through.

The author developed a grit scale (here is a shortened version).

To calculate your score, add your score and divide by 10. The higher the score the higher your grit. 

The authors research showed a strong correlation between academic level (e.g. MBA, PhD etc) and grit.


Talent versus Effort 

Talent is over-rated. Everyone has some predisposition to be good at something. But it takes hard work to turn raw talent into achievement. Many people with talent have failed to capitalise on their innate abilities.

Harvard Psychologists William James asserts, “Compared to where we ought to be, we are only half awake…We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources…the human individual lives usually far within his limits

Conversely, many people with limited ability have developed talent by putting in the hard yards. Grit defines ‘staying power’. It’s about perseverance to a cause. So whilst it is not necessarily a guarantee of success, we know (to quote Woody Allen) “80% of success is just showing up”.

Darwin was a ‘plodder’ rather than being an intellect. But it was his love of his subject that kept him engaged longer than others.

The problem is we live in a culture that rewards ‘natural talent’ (especially intelligence) versus the hard worker. Our TV shows and sport stadiums celebrate innate, raw talent.  Organizations likewise have focused on hiring the brightest (often from the best universities) and culling aggressively the less talented (‘up’ or ‘out’).

The trouble with focusing just on talent is that it rewards the 1% and dis-incentivises the 99%. Research suggests constant effort dedicated to one area is more influential on success than our genes.

Dedicated Focused effort

Excellence is achieved rarely in leaps, but small incremental steps, spread over a long period of time, and gained from endless practice. The reality is they acquired greatness through dedicated, long-term focus.

Nietzsche once wrote, “Great things are accomplished by those people whose thinking is active in one direction”. There is not enough time to do everything we want to do. If we want to excel, we need to focus (and thus let go/de-prioritise other things).

Letting go: Award winning chef, Marc Vetri was initially interested in music. At music college, he had to get a job to fund his education. After a while he fell in love with cooking, and focused his energies there. 

Dedicated focus: Warren MacKenzie is a celebrated potter. When younger he experimented with many different art forms until eventually he fell in love with ceramics. His passion for pottery meant he was happier to give-up the other art forms and dedicate his time to perfecting the art of pottery. He knew success would not be found in dabbling but having a searing focus on one thing. He said, “The first 10,000 pots were difficult, and then it got a lot easier”.

Duckworth came up with a simple model:

1) Talent x Effort = Skill

2) Skill x Effort = Achievement

Hard work really matters. Talent by itself will lead to nowhere. We need to work hard to turn talent into skill.  When we have skill we then need to work even harder to rise above the many others who also have skill to attain mastery (that then leads to achievement).

Turn it around. If we lack talent in an area we need to make even more effort to reach the same level of skill as someone who has lots of natural talent.

Hard work: Will Smith, the Oscar winning actor once said, “I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented. Where I excel is a ridiculous, sickening work ethic…The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is: I’m not afraid to die on the treadmill. I will not be outworked. Period.You might have more talent than me. You might be smarter than me. You might be sexier than me…But if we get on that treadmill together there’s two things: You’re getting off first or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.”

Deliberate Practice

Kaizen is the Japanese for CANI – Constant and Never Ending Improvement. It’s a continuous drive to progress (and not become complacent).

People who practice more, generally do better in things. But it all depends on the quality of practice. Some people have 20 years of experience whilst others have one year of experience repeated 20 times. Thus practice is much deeper than just the hours spent – it’s more about the quality of those hours. The key seems to be deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice means having a real focus, with deep awareness, and concentration during our training sessions (so that there is a very active ‘feedback loop’ in operation allowing us to improve every time). Each session is purposeful (leading up to our higher goals) often with specific objectives for each session. First we have a stretch goal (some high level ambition – e.g. winning Gold). Then we break it down into manageable training objectives/milestones (e.g. be at x speed by y). Then each session builds a particular area of expertise (e.g. working on leg lift, eye focus etc) zeroing-in on just one aspect of our overall performance.  We need to be really focused on feedback so we know if we are achieving our objectives. Every session is an opportunity to learn and grow. Every session not learnt from is a wasted session.

Deliberate practice takes a lot of effort. It’s easy not to push ourselves, but that’s not how a muscle is built. It takes straining (not just training) to build the skills to perform at the highest levels. As one coach said, “They need to learn to love the burn”.

Quantity of quality: Rowdy Gaines, the three-times Olympic gold medal swimmer swam ‘around the world’ in practice for a 49 second race! The reality is the people who also swam in that final had also swam a similar distance. It was won in the quality of those miles, not the quantity.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheeks-sent-me-high) focuses on the state of high performance where the individual is ‘in flow’. It’s a state of almost unconscious action, where the body (rather then the conscious brain) runs the show. Actions are effortless, more fluid and natural unlike the clumsy interventions of the under-evolved conscious part of our ‘intellectual’ brain (unconscious competence versus conscious competence).

“You feel as though you do not exist…my hand seems devoid of myself. I have nothing to do with what is happening….and the music just flows out of me” – Conductor

“It was just one of those programs that clicked…it’s almost as if you don’t have to think, everything goes automatically” – Ice skater.

These periods of ‘flow’ are intoxicating and addictive as we touch (briefly) a higher level of ‘self’.

Thus there are two stages: A very conscious state of practice that then leads to an unconscious state of flow. It would appear that people who undertake deliberate practice experience more frequent periods of flow. It’s through strained effort in practice they can perform in a very relaxed, almost effortless, fluid way in the heat of battle.

Passionate purpose drives perseverance

Life is short. Follow your passion”, said Will Shortz, Editor for New York Times. Jeff Bezos told Princeton Graduates, “If you’re not passionate about what it is you’re working on, you won’t be able to stick to it.” Successful people love what they do. They rarely do it for the money but for the intrinsic reward it brings them (and because they are excellent at it, they make money from it).

Yet a recent Gallup poll revealed that more than two thirds of people were not engaged in their work. The same was found across 141 different nations to varying levels. Indeed, when questioned, few people could tell them what they were truly passionate about.

Grit has two components: passion and perseverance. Without the passion, we will not have the perseverance to keep on pushing through all the monotony and downturns. Passion needs to be enduring and not fleeting. It’s something we need to care about deeply. It’s important to us. Indeed its purpose starts to define us. Achieving this goal is not just a ‘nice to have’- it’s a real ‘imperative’

Looking back at the grit questionnaire, add up all the odd numbers (and divide by 5) to get a ‘passion’ score and all the even numbers (and divide by 5) to get a perseverance score.

Evidence: A Stanford Psychologist, Catharine Cox analysed 301 exceptional achievers from their biographies. She coded their reported traits (from intelligence though to extroversion). From there she drew correlations to try to work out the difference that made the difference. Cox found a leading trait: Persistence of motive (i.e. persistence driven by passion).

Passion and perseverance need direction to make them purposeful. That is why we need a goal to aim for. Without a target the passion will be wasted. Having a goal not only helps drive action but it further strengthens the passion and resolve.

Defined by your passion: Hall of fame pitcher, Tom Seaver, had 311 wins to his name with 3,640 strikeouts. During his 20 year baseball career he aimed to “pitch the best I possibly could day after day, year after year…Pitching is what makes me happy. I’ve devoted my life to it”. Often by focusing on the small things the big things come.

The trouble with goals is they can feel too lofty – too big, too distant to either believe or achieve. We therefore need to set interim, stepping stone objectives along the way – ones that stretch yet are still achievable (but ultimately lead to our goals). We need to analyse what are the obstacles, and then work out our strategies to get past them. That said the goal should be immoveable but the strategies need to flex (as with any long journey, detours are inevitable) – so we should write the goal in pen and the strategies in pencil.

The ability to adapt to win: Roz Chast, the celebrated cartoonist contributed 571 cartoons over his career to the New Yorker. From an early age he wanted to be one of the best cartoonists in the world. But it did not happen over night.  He had enough rejection letters from the New Yorker to paper his bathroom. So he changed his strategy. He analysed all the cartoons in the new Yorker going back to 1925 to work out what was the missing ingredient. He found all the cartoons had a personal style. Also they made people ‘re-think’. With these new insights, he upped his game and after another 2,000 rejections, eventually got published. His advice to budding cartoonists is to draw in batches of ten because, “In cartooning, as in life, nine out of ten things never work out.”

Out of interest grows purpose

There seems to be a classic path to purpose: First comes Interest. Many people have an unconscious interest in an area (what the author calls an ‘enduring devotion’). Because they enjoy the area they spend more time doing it than other things, leading to stage 2: Practice. Practice means they slowly get better and better at it. After a while they move into the third phase: Purpose. Their interest has moved beyond the average and they now see it to be something of great importance to them. Something that in many ways defines who they are and what they see to be important. This helps turn up the flames of both interest and practice as it becomes more purposeful. Finally there needs Hope.  Hope is the unwavering belief that they will get better and they will hit their ambition (inspite of all the setbacks along the way).

Not only was it about themselves but they all talked about how what they were doing benefitted others as well (i.e. not as selfish as we may think of a person dedicated to a sport). It appears a person first starts with a purely selfish interest but at some point has an epiphany about its connection to a bigger external benefit for society/others. Then purpose and passion gets leveraged. Purpose appears to have greater gravitational pull if linked to a higher calling outside of just themselves. If they see what they are doing helps others, it galvanises effort and resilience to the cause.

Dealing with failure

Failure is a key part of any person’s success (progress rarely runs a straight course). We tend to learn more from when we fail than when we succeed. It makes us re-evaluate our strategies and commitments. But some people give up, allowing their internal negative talk to kill their ambition.

Sadly our culture trains people from an early age to have a negative experience of failure. When a baby falls over when learning to walk it giggles. When at Kindergarten, mistakes start to get ‘pointed out’. We instil them with embarrassment, shame, sadness and fear – and that carries on for the rest of their lives. No wonder people do not want to risk failing.


‘Fall seven, rise eight’ – Japenese proverb

Hope dies last

Hope is a critical factor in perseverance. It’s about a belief that things will get better.

Hope makes us not give up, to not accept the status quo, to push on and dare to try new ways to achieve our outcome.

Seligman ran a whole series of experiments in the 1960’s to show that when we give up hope we move into a state called learned helplessness (in one famous experiment, dogs just laid on the ground and learned to accept the mild current that flowed through their kennel floor). In many ways people accept the same.  Seligman has also suggested that we can develop learned optimism.

Newer research has shown that optimists have as many bad events in their life as pessimists but choose to react differently. In a test, pessimists were asked what reasons they give when they fail to complete a task. Pessimists tend to jump to permanent things that cannot be solved (e.g. “I always screw things up”). Optimists instead blame transitory things that can be addressed (e.g. “I mismanaged my time”). They see setbacks as points of learning. Further research has shown how pessimists are more depressed, anxious and less gritty.  They also tend to be less successful in career, life, relationships and health.

Optimism drives repeated performance: Coaches invited Olympic swimmers to swim their best. Afterwards they told them they had performed less well than was actually he case. When offered the chance to swim it again, Optimists performed as well as the first time, whilst the pessimists performed significantly less well.

Fixed versus Growth mindset

Carol Dweck, a psychologist defined two different mindsets that can lead to a grittier predisposition.

Some people have a ‘fixed’ mindset. This means they believe that their talent/ability is primarily defined by their innate, genetic make up. Since we cannot affect our DNA it means they see there is a limit to their growth. Thus they do not see the point of expending too much energy. Dweck found that people with a ‘fixed’ mindset gave up on hard tests (and tended to cheat more). They are also unlikely to take on difficult challenges for fear of being ‘found out’

Other people have a ‘growth’ mindset. These people believed their ability could be enhanced through hard work. The critical issue is they saw failure as a learning opportunity (they don’t over-react to them). They tend to work harder, do better at school, enjoy better physical and mental health, and have stronger and more positive relationships. And of course they are grittier.

One of the keys to a growth mindset is knowing what to do next. We need to have the ability to diagnose the cause of the failure and then work out our strategy to address the issue.  Too many people do nothing because they do not know what to do. We need to take responsibility for our actions and seize control of our destinies.

Grit can be grown

The key question is how much is grit nature or nurture? The short answer is it’s a bit of both (this has been investigated through 2000 pairs of identical twins).

The reality is we tend to learn/model such mindsets at a very early age and they can stay with us a lifetime. It’s not about a protected and mollycoddled life away from stress but more how we react and deal with the stresses and downturns early on. If early-on we  failed in some way, but were guided with healthy strategies to cope and push on, then we are more likely to adopt those strategies later-on in life. It’s often about the perceived locus of control. If we see ourselves to be a ‘victim’ and believe we have little or no control of the situation we move into a place of helpless and hopeless. However, if we see the situation as transitory and that we do have some degree of control, then it gives us the strength to keep on pushing.

Conversely if when young we did not cope with such situations, it is likely to become a default setting for future events in our lives. Many kids raised in deprived backgrounds are getting far too many early lessons in helplessness which sadly sets many of them up for failure in life.

Likewise, the children of the wealthy who have had highly protected, ‘gifted’ lives have never experienced failure so have not yet learned how to cope with setbacks and failure. These ‘fragile perfects’ know how to succeed in life but have not yet learned how to fail.

We often see two ends of a continuum in parenting from the nurturing, loving support at one end and the more authoritarian, demanding and tough style of parenting at the other. So which is best to breed a mindset of gritty children? Is grit forged in the crucible of unrelenting high standards or nurtured in the warm embrace of loving support?

The reality is it’s a mix of loving supportive high standards (i.e. tough love). Parents need to set standards that become the accepted norm. The key then is to not tolerate a drop in those standards.  It’s also a lot to do with perceived expectation. If a parent/teacher/coach truly believes we can perform at a certain level (that is often above our own belief), then we will rise to it. It’s about developing in our children the self belief, self-worth and confidence that they can succeed. Finally, more often than not it’s less what parents say and more what they do (as we learn from modelling those significant others around us).

Expectations derive performance: Psychologists David Yeager and Geoff Cohen ran an experiment where they asked Seventh grade teachers to provide feedback on a student essay. After wards, the researchers assigned them into random piles. Onto the first pile they added a Post-it that said, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper”. On the second pile they wrote, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” Students were then given the opportunity to resubmit. 80% of those with the high expectations remark resubmitted, whilst only 40% of the first pile did. The high expectations group also made twice as many amendments to their essay.

The playing fields of grit

Partaking in some kind of extra curricular activities has also been shown to help improve grittiness as they are about mastering a skill (be it ballet, drama, football, violin etc).  There are countless studies that show that children involved in extra-curricular activities fare better on every metric (grades, self-esteem, behaviour, future employment, financial health  etc).

It would seem that the trials and tribulations of developing an extra curricular skill (supported by good teachers and peers) help train our children in the mindset of persevering and not giving up in the face of failure. The sad reality is many schools are now so cash strapped  and overburdened with admin and there is little extra-curricula activities that the teachers can support.

Trained-in effort lasts: Psychologist Robert Eisenberger trained rats to press a lever for food. In one group he made them work hard for their food (twenty presses) versus the other group where they got a pellet after just two pushes. When they were then set other activities, the hard working rats demonstrated more vigour and endurance than the ‘easy’ rats.

Evidence: The Personal Qualities Project in Princeton University developed a predictor test for future achievement. They followed several thousand students for five years starting in high school. From their studies they isolated over 100 different traits that could influence performance (inc personal background, socioeconomic status, IQ etc). One factor stood out as the principal predictor of success: Follow-through.

Using grit as a key criteria for job selection: At Microsoft, they used to give potential software programmers a task that would be tedious and take ages to complete. This was a test of their follow-through to the end line and not give up. 

A culture of grit

The culture we live in (and most identify with) powerfully shapes our beliefs, values and hence behaviour.

A culture is an invisible psychological boundary that connects us. It is the shared norms, values and behaviours of a group i.e. ‘How we do things around here’. When we adopt a culture, we take on its values and behaviours. At its highest level we identify with that culture – it defines us. Eventually we become the embodiment of that culture. Thus if we want to be like a certain group of people, then we should join that culture. If we want to become a great swimmer, we need to join a great team. Likewise, if we want to increase our grit, we must join a culture that has grittiness at its core. Then their ‘norms’ of performance and standards become ours (for example when everyone else is getting up at  four in the morning to go swimming it seems normal to us as well).

If we want to create a strong culture we need to define (and hold to) some key values. These then need to be constantly and continually communicated.

Creating a culture: An interview with the head coach of the Seahawks (the Seattle based American Football team) revealed how attention to detail was critical to embed the culture. For example, use of specific language is key along with regular use of rituals.


Whilst it is an easy book to read (having been written in a conversational style) I found the book to be quite light with limited robust data.  It was also very repetitive (frankly I did get a bit bored towards the end).

A lot of the evidence is based on correlations (and we know that correlations does not mean causation). For example, we do not know for sure that it was the grit component that led to the success (as success is multi factorial). As often is the case the researchers/author find the answer they want in the data presented.

The book seems to be more focused on hard work than the mental toughness of grit.  I had expected more in the area of mental toughness along with a range of techniques to build grit. Indeed she only offers one strategy (in our grasp) to develop our grit and that is to have a purpose.  I still sense we need more than this to build mental fortitude.


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